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Common interests, common challenges: 50 years of Australia-China relations

A half century is a significant milestone. After 50 years, the relationship between China and Australia stands as a signature example of the potential, but also the pitfalls, for how two very different countries can pursue peace, economic interdependence, safeguard common interests, and face common challenges.

In 1972, both Australia and China were very different countries. Australia was not yet the multicultural and internationalized nation that it is today. China had not yet embarked on reform and opening-up which has helped hundreds of millions to lead a more prosperous life. Yet leaders with foresight envisaged that the peoples of the two countries with vastly different historical experiences could, and indeed must, find ways to cooperate. Australia’s prosperity and China’s growth have been intertwined ever since.

It could have been very different. Asia in the 1970s was still gripped by geopolitical conflict. The Cold War featured a series of proxy wars in Asia between superpowers locked in a zero-sum confrontation. Since then, Asia has been able to maintain peace, despite, and indeed out of respect for, its great diversity.

These decades of peace have allowed Asia’s people to concentrate on development and prosperity. There are lessons we can draw from this about focusing on building peace and investing in stability, rather than being drawn into imagined “great games”.

The phenomenal success of Asia’s development model since the 1970s illustrates the all-round benefits of economic interdependence. Both Australia and China have invested in building this more prosperous and peaceful Asia. It is no accident that the world’s biggest free trade area, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, includes China and Australia. Both countries have benefited from openness to trade, investment, tourism, education and research links. It is in the interests of both Australia and China to deepen and broaden rules-based cooperation in order to help the region to achieve greater prosperity.

Yet the last few years have demonstrated how geopolitics can put economic interdependence (and peace) at risk. If we irrationally imagine we are “destined for war”, then we risk turning false assumptions into reality, by choosing confrontation over cooperation. The stakes were raised when the United States declared it was in strategic competition with China amid other security, health and economic crises around the world. Australia, as a security partner of the US and economic partner of China, was imagined by some to be on an inevitable path to choose one over the other, even though it made no sense for a country whose security and prosperity must be found by sustaining good relations on both sides of the Pacific.

Both Australia and China have learned from history that wise leaders will choose to pursue interests over ideology in international relations. When the dust settles on disputes or disagreements, which will inevitably happen, we must return to finding common interests. That is how good neighbours settle problems.

Indeed, Australia and China demonstrate how two very different countries can both benefit from cooperation. It is manifestly in the interests of both countries to maintain peace, stability and economic interdependence. Common interests can, if we choose, provide the basis for another fifty years of cooperation.

We also have some common challenges. First among them is climate change. Failure to address global warming would be catastrophic for Australia, China and all of the other countries in the region.

Small island nations of the Pacific are already seeing the tragic results of more frequent natural disasters. Food security will be a major risk in a changing climate. As a major regional supplier of food, energy and resources, Australia has an important role to play in the transition to sustainability. As a major innovator in new technologies and investor in regional infrastructure, China has a critical role to play in implementing sustainable solutions. Working together and only by working together can the two countries help achieve a much-needed green deal for the Asia-Pacific region, so as to ensure a safe and sustainable future. They must also facilitate sustainable development in the Pacific.

The 50th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Australian diplomatic ties is an apt time to take stock of what has worked and what has not at a state-to-state level. Fortunately, we have another rich source of future collaboration, the millions of Australians and Chinese whose lives link the two countries, relationships that go back many more generations than simply fifty years and will sustain our shared future.

Former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, whose government initiated diplomatic relations with China in 1972, once said that “true national independence depends upon international interdependence.” That is a principle that holds true today for both of our great nations.

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