China must be part of long-term Australian political narrative

26 July 2013

Most Chinese would be amazed at the image their country has in Australia. To many people living here, China is a wealthy, powerful, dominant country, poised to be the major power in the next few decades.

Australia is about to go through a national election in September. Almost certainly, one of the key issues for the country in the coming years will be the management of its relationship with China.

Despite this, there is little sign as yet that this topic is going to be very prominent in the election campaigns. The main issues will be how the local economy is likely to do, and the management of migration.

It is a pity that discussion of Sino-Australian relations isn't going to get more attention over the election period. Now might be a good time to address some of the ambiguities that seem to exist in the public perception of China.

When you argue that China is collectively wealthy but in per capita terms still very poor, and that its major challenges in coming years are likely to be infrastructure, the environment and living standards instead of global domination, most Australians might be puzzled.

There are two clashing mind-sets here. Most Chinese think of their country as still poor and developing. They would look at the relative levels of equality in Australia, and its world-class health and education systems with envy. The lifestyle of Australians is among the best in the world. If Chinese were able to enjoy this even in two to three decades' time, that would be a wonderful outcome.

But Australians see their country as small - not in terms of size, but population.

They would look at their military with only 60,000 people, and the vast unprotected beach lines along their coast, and feel vulnerable and exposed.

The tyranny of distance is less than it used to be, but for many Australians who still trace their roots back to Europe or the US, they are isolated and need to work hard to maintain these cultural, political and security links.

Europeans and Americans are criticized for being too certain as to who they are, and always asserting their values and their beliefs. They are regarded by many in China as trying to impose their convictions as absolutes.

In an odd way, Australians being more uncertain about identity issues is both a weakness - because it leads to these feelings of vulnerability - and a strength.

In the end, they can work toward a new understanding, and adapt to new circumstances quicker than those with more entrenched ideas.

The possible outcomes of the upcoming Australian election, at least for China, encapsulate this flexibility.

On the one hand, there is the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd - a man who has lived in China, speaks Putonghua and prides himself on his knowledge of the country. But he seems to have very set ideas about how China should be treated, and who the Chinese are, ideas which come across as preachy and rigid.

On the other hand, is the opposition led by Tony Abbott. They are inexperienced, and none has the qualifications of someone like Rudd in engaging with China.

Even so, they might use their inexperience to their advantage if they are elected, and canvas from a wider constituency of people to craft a more pragmatic and collaborative policy toward China.

In Australia, the current ambiguity toward China needs to be fixed. At some point in the next few years, a significant investment or event will mean Australians have to come down from the fence and make a commitment, either to have closer relations with China, or to take a step back. The likelihood is they will want to be closer. Politicians need to take the lead in this public debate.

Professor Kerry Brown is Executive Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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