Last Friday the University of Technology’s Australia-China Relations Institute (UTS:ACRI) hosted a speech from China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian. (Disclosure: I am a researcher at UST:ACRI.)
Not unsurprisingly, the event was disrupted by a series of protests. These highlighted human rights issues in China, including Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur and Tibetan minorities, the implementation and impact of the Hong Kong National Security Law, and impediments to freedom of speech in China.
While the event was ultimately a success, heightened emotions surrounding these issues meant that it could easily have been otherwise.
In this sense, the event was a microcosm of the challenges facing Australia-China relations, as both sides seek a fresh start on the back of a change in government in Canberra.
The election of the Albanese government has given both China and Australia the opportunity for a face-saving step back from the antagonisms that stymied diplomacy during the Morrison government era. On the Australian side, Canberra has signaled that it will pursue a more tactful diplomacy. But as Australia cannot back away from its democratic commitments to transparency and representation, it will need the Chinese side to accommodate the raising of sensitive issues for regular and genuine dialogue to be viable.
On this, it is worth noting some important points about this event.
Prior to the speech, UTS:ACRI had conveyed to the Chinese embassy that it was probable protesters would attempt to disrupt the event.
And contrary to some reports, while the Chinese embassy was given the opportunity to view the questions it would be asked to facilitate their preparations, it was not given the opportunity to “vet” them. These were anything but softball questions, including enquiries about the alleged arbitrary arrest and denial of rights of Australian citizens Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, and China’s trade restrictions on Australian goods, widely believed to be a punitive response to Canberra’s request for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Put another way, the event was organized on terms largely decided by UTS:ACRI and not by the Chinese embassy. The Chinese side also knew that the event would be used by Beijing’s critics as a platform to promote their views. Xiao could have walked away. But – presumably with the blessings of Beijing – he attended anyway. He did so with a minimal Chinese security contingent, and without the “wolf warrior” rhetoric of some of his colleagues in China’s Foreign Ministry.
For the embassy of a powerful county to consent to such an arrangement without imposing conditions or interventions is peculiar – and not only for China. There is little doubt that the intent was to signal that Beijing is more open to frank engagement. It also bodes well that Xiao explicitly stated that China’s so-called “14 grievances” are merely “concerns” as opposed to essential conditions for resuming regular ministerial level dialogue. It is worth wondering, given that, whether the event signals a ground-breaking shift in Beijing’s approach to the relationship – and perhaps even its diplomacy more generally.
In recent years Beijing has placed growing emphasis on what it calls “discourse power.” This is often understood as the power to disseminate narratives that could help advance Beijing’s influence and interests. This emphasis on discourse power arguably reflects a growing recognition that an older Maoist view on diplomacy – one that assumes that the potency of words is in the final analysis a product of economic and military power asymmetries – is a factor behind China’s diplomatic underperformance, and perhaps even the frustrations that have propelled Beijing’s much maligned, and recently toned down, “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
As Australia’s own diplomatic failures in the South Pacific have shown, real discursive power in the age of the liberal international order is rarely fostered through performative representations of power asymmetries. As new Foreign Minister Penny Wong has amply demonstrated, it is often forged instead through engaging with and allaying, rather than ignoring or talking over, the critiques and concerns of smaller nations. On this point, Xiao’s statement that “I’m here to share with you my views, and at the same time, listen to your views” was significant in that it emerged in the midst of vocal demonstrations and probing questions – but also in the context of Beijing’s diplomatic tussles with Australia and shifting diplomatic fortunes in this part of the world.
The recent pushback against China’s attempt to sign a multilateral security agreement with Pacific Island countries has seen Beijing shift tact and explore cooperation with Australia – the very nation that made a concerted attempt to head off and undermine the pact. If China is to reframe the bilateral relationship as a partnership for the production and dissemination of global public goods, and in particular, contributions to “regional peace, stability and prosperity,” Beijing will have every incentive to build trust by recognizing and seeking to allay concerns that joint efforts might alter the region’s security architecture.
To be sure, as Xiao stated, Australia will also need to be more open to engaging some of Beijing’s views for the bilateral relationship to get back on track. On this front, Xiao had issues with media reports that fail to present “a true picture about China,” as well as Canberra’s alleged inability to grasp the sentiments of the Chinese people – which he, in line with others, imputed can be a source of political pressure for Beijing. These statements were followed several days later by remarks from the Australian sinologist and professor Colin Patrick Mackerras, who criticized Western reporting on China as “hostile,” and implied that it had informed the “unnecessarily abrasive” diplomacy of the former Australian government.
In reality Canberra can neither put down or block out these voices. But it should be wary of the diplomatic and reputational costs of amplifying criticisms that are ill-founded or misdirected. To do so it may need to address the growing gap between Australia’s heightened levels of concern about China and its investments in fostering insight and engagement. As David S. G. Goodman noted last month, Chinese studies is in decline in Australia at a time when understanding China has never been more important. And as University of Melbourne Professor Anne McClaren recently stated, “Australia still has too few Australian China specialists to meet the national need for expert engagement with our largest trading partner.
Despite the enormous volume of research on contemporary China in recent years, prompted by an abundance of grants and a voracious appetite for China-focused content in academic journals, the discourse on China in Australia is often wildly disconnected from academic findings – not to mention far removed from the voices and lived experiences of Chinese nationals. While those who focus on Australia’s engagements with China should not get lost in the inexhaustible forest that is sinology, it could be argued that it would help if Australia’s China critics were more engaged with China’s internal discourses and inquisitive in relation to its many complexities and conundrums – such as the grounds of Chinese perceptions that the party is not only legitimate but “democratic” and meritocratic, and the peculiar levels of domestic support for China’s social credit systems.
Yet at the same time, the dark views on China bemoaned by Mackerras stem in part not from what he sees as the inability of the West to “accept the rise of China,” but rather the opposite – a sober refusal to indulge in what the Russians call “informational sedatives.” On this point, Australian analysts may appear especially grim in their collective assessment of the threats posed by China’s growing economic and military power, and the gravity of the policy and ideological ills that this potency could help Beijing export internationally. But ultimately this stems from Australia’s anxieties as a Western democracy that is far closer and more exposed to China than its like-minded allies in Europe and North America. Geographically isolated, faced with a concerted campaign by Beijing to expand its security footprint in its South Pacific “backyard,” and at the fulcrum of an inchoate superpower tussle to control the maritime sphere linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, Australia’s worries are more immediate, and anything but imagined.
In this sense, the tendency of Australia to be particularly vocal in “calling out” China is arguably as much a product of historical and immutable geostrategic realities as the politicking of conservative hawks and their media enablers. While the new government in Canberra may have shown relatively more diplomatic nous, it might want to exploit its post-election honeymoon – and Beijing’s tentative reconciliatory overtures – to invest in relationship capital before these disruptive anxieties again bubble to the surface. As with the case of the UTS protesters, Canberra too will need to approach critical Australian voices very carefully if it is to keep likely disruptions from causing lasting derailments.
Yet it is here also that the Australia-China relationship comes up against the limits of diplomacy and “discursive power.” Middle states do not get to choose the world’s superpowers, but they are often active in vetting them. Australia’s voice may be more “abrasive” than those of other nations, but it is not alone in noticing the gap between China’s softening rhetoric on great-small power relations and its hardening approaches to domestic security and territorial disputes. Canberra and Beijing can, and should, engage with each other with more respect and decorum, but they are a long way from returning to anything akin to the “friendship” that defined the relationship in 2015. Unless China changes in ways that are more substantive, both sides are likely to need more than dialogue to reverse Australia’s recent shift from accommodating China’s rise and hedging, to stepping up efforts to balance against it.