Mistaking colonial thinking for national interest



Australia is the most economically integrated with China of all G20 economies.  Yet the relationship remains fragile and based on superficial stereotypes, rather than a deep understanding and commitment.  Inevitably there are hiccups and incidents, as between any two countries with extensive contact but, each time dramatic exaggerations and accusations get hurled about, the path to understanding is made more and more difficult.  We remain focused on the problems rather than solutions.


Australian media has recently evoked suspicion of Chinese soft power and Chinese media has depicted Australia as capriciously blocking Chinese investment.  This is clearly no special relationship, at least not yet.  A better understanding on both sides would help.  Nevertheless, the two nations continue to enjoy in the meantime a vibrant exchange of trade, investment, tourism and students.


The Australian Government has recently announced it will develop a new foreign policy White Paper.  It has a Prime Minister who says “there has never been a better time to be an Australian.”  Might a new optimism and confidence about Australia’s assets and its place in the world help reassure Australia that it can build a less fragile relationship with China?  Or will any new strategy be constrained by Australia’s habit of playing loyal deputy for its traditional global allies and lingering suspicions of China?


The crux of Australia’s dilemma is whether it can have both a deep economic engagement with China (and a deepening people to people relationship) while maintaining its security alliance with the United States.  If it can have both, Australians will be satisfied that the future is bright; if it cannot Australians will become more and more anxious.  I believe it can, if Australia is brave enough to put its national interest first and craft an approach to the world that is at once more confident and less colonial.


For most of its history, Australia has been seen as a “lucky country.”  The country’s rich resources and practical, easy-going people have delivered a prosperous and safe place that draws migrants and visitors from around the world.  But since it was colonized by the British Empire, Australians have relied on distant, powerful friends for trade, culture and security and have continued to suffer a colonial fear of being left on their own in an uncertain world.  Regardless of a generation of talk about being part of the Asia Pacific, Australians still arguably have unresolved feelings about their location adjacent to Asia and a deep ambivalence about Australia’s independence, its responsibilities and role in its own region.


To understand any nation, it is important to understand its history.  Australia is no exception.  The prevailing culture of the British who colonized Australia was one that turned its back on the indigenous Australian population and culture and set about creating a settler society firmly focused on Europe as its cultural home.  Until the 1970s, trade and investment was overwhelmingly with the British.  Non-European migrants were barred in most cases and Asia was feared.  The rite of passage for ambitious young Australians was to journey to London.


Apart from astute leadership during the Second World War, when Australia wisely turned to the United States to save it from Japanese invasion (when Britain demonstratively could not help), the country suffered largely mediocre leadership.  It prospered more from good fortune and practical, innovative people than from government, which has always been treated with disdain and skepticism by Australians of all walks of life.


Then two waves of change presided over by charismatic leaders utterly transformed the sleepy, post-colonial society and made modern Australia more outward looking, but neither of the two waves of change are yet complete.  First, in the 1970s, Australia began to embrace the liberal social change that had started in America and Europe in the 1960s.  The Prime Minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, wrapped up the social reforms of his government with a new confidence in Australia as a nation that could be in charge of its own destiny and could overcome the deep “cultural cringe” of colonial insecurity from its past.


Alongside a raft of social reforms, Whitlam abolished the old discriminatory ban on Asian immigration and recognized the People’s Republic of China.  Indeed his visit to Beijing as Opposition Leader was several weeks ahead of Richard Nixon’s famous visit.  A new interest in Australia’s location in the Asia Pacific region started to take hold.  The old colonial ties started to weaken, particularly when the UK ended trade preferences for its former colonies and joined the protectionist European Community (later known as the EU).   But Whitlam was swept away by the global recession, inadequate attention to economic management and, ironically, sacked by the representative of the British Queen.

The second wave of change was economic opening, and this time Australia was a leader rather than a follower.  Led by first Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating, Australia opened its economy in the 1980s and early 1990s to the world, embracing the new deregulatory thinking that was known in Australia as “economic rationalism.”  Competition was introduced into formerly sleepy and protected industries, including sectors under government control.  Immigration grew and Australia embraced a new, highly skilled and international, multicultural workforce.  A new, strategic focus on Australia’s engagement with the Asia Pacific region led to Australia’s championing of APEC and other initiatives to deepen trade and investment and to grow its tourism and international education industries.  The economic reforms set Australia up for a quarter century of growth and prosperity.


But Australians are practical people, not ideological, and don’t often talk of these great waves of change or reform.  They have built a harmonious society, step-by-step, that is a unique blend of liberalism and social democracy, while few Australians know these terms.  The society has been built more by practice than by any grand plan, people arriving from across the seas with ambition and determination to get on with the business of building a better, safer life than was possible in the places they left.


As a consequence of no great reflection about its development, Australians have not yet thrown off the cultural inheritance of colonialism, a deep insecurity.  Australian media and culture still looks for validation to the UK and the US.  Every comparison is with these larger traditional powers, not with the nations of Australia’s neighborhood.   Australians know little of their own land or the people and diverse cultures that inhabited the land for 50,000 years before the Europeans.  Australian-born people rarely learn the languages of their region or pay any attention to the cultures, politics or economies of their neighbours in the Pacific Islands or South East Asia.


Australians remain committed to a security alliance with the US, following the sacrifices that nation made to save Australia from Japanese invasion in the Second World War.  This is a deep debt of gratitude Australians feel to Americans and that should not be underestimated.  American soft power in the twentieth century reinforced Australia’s place in the US orbit.  As did Australia’s colonial mentality, transferred from Britain to America.  When other US allies remain cautious of America’s occasional imperial overreach, Australia is always first to rush to America’s side, blundering from Vietnam to Iraq.


So the rise of China raises a particular challenge for Australia.  In a place that doesn’t give much thought to the big picture, is used to relying on big, powerful friends to lead the way, there is now a whole new ball game.  And Australia might need to make some decisions for itself.  It is time to look at the big picture and Australia’s place in it.

China, has, over the last decade, become Australia’s largest trading partner, its leading source of new foreign direct investment, migrants, tourists and international students.  For China, Australia is a strategic partner, its sixth biggest trading partner, a major source of minerals, energy, food and other inputs for its ongoing growth.  A million Chinese have made Australia their home. But hearts and minds in Australia haven’t caught up with the change.


Australia is now as dependent on China as it used to be on Britain.  Culturally, Australia accepted its dependence on Britain, because the relationship was multi-dimensional and deeply rooted, just as was its subsequent relationship with the US.  The relationship with China is still young and, while it has been mutually beneficial for both sides, it remains a transactional, business relationship.  And transactional relationships can be easily upset.  Australia and China cannot afford this, given their level of economic integration.


So Australia must learn more about China, understand the great process of change that transformed China since Deng Xiaoping and the new period of change led by Xi Jinping.  Australians need to learn the language, the culture of their new great friend, just as hundreds of thousands of students sent from China have learned about Australia.


We now have decades of history and experience of Chinese and Australian businesses finding common ground and building strong relationships, as well as Chinese migrants successfully contributing to Australia’s multicultural society.  Yet every time there is a difference of view on a day-to-day political issue between the two governments, the very relationship is called into question by voices in the media in both countries, revealing fragility beneath the surface of the booming economic links.  What will it take for the Australia-China government to government relationship to become deeper and broader and less brittle?


This is not just one of the questions, but it is the question for Australia, as it reviews its foreign policy and plans for its next stage of economic development and as China continues to develop as Australia’s major economic partner.  Is Australia capable of developing an enduring partnership with China?  It is overwhelmingly in the interests of both.  The economies are certainly complementary.  The people to people links are growing.  Neither needs to be a threat to the other if bound by common interests and shared respect.  But the media chorus of complaints can easily whip up fear and uncertainty that, in turn, influences weak leadership to close doors to cooperation.


Our two countries will, from time to time, have different views.  This is natural.  Australia also has different views and values from its traditional friends.  Australians deplore the class system of Britain and the gun culture of America, yet can remain close friends and pursue shared interests. No doubt there are things about Australia that other countries will decry, not least the appalling treatment of indigenous Australians over more than two centuries and Australia’s recent harsh treatment of asylum seekers.


The question is whether leaders can chart a course of mutually beneficial cooperation between Australia and China that can withstand the differences and problems that will inevitably arise from time to time between two very different societies.


Australia has an articulate and engaging leader in Malcolm Turnbull who understands the challenge.  But he does not have a strong mandate.  He narrowly won the recent election and he suffers an Australian media focused on whipping up conflict and division, with little regard for facts or national interest.  There is no ready environment for a prime minister to outline a vision of a new strategic approach to working with China, or Australia’s broader place in the world.

More likely will be small steps.  Business will continue to build from strength to strength as a result of the China – Australia Free Trade Agreement, people to people connections will become closer and mutual understanding will inch forward.  But the relationship will remain fragile.


Will Australia’s new foreign policy White Paper provide a foundation for a stronger relationship with China?  Time will tell, but the relationship certainly cannot fully mature without Australia taking a hard look at its place in the world and learning to become more confident about its own choices.  Australia has an opportunity this century to chart a new course, friend to both the United States and China, with its future in its own hands.  Businesses and individuals do so every day, motivated by rational self- interest.   Australia as a nation can too, if it dumps the colonial thinking and focuses on its national interest.


A shorter version of this article was published in the Global Times, October 28, 2016

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