Comment: Election Year

Australia’s relationship with China is unlikely to play a significant role in the lead up to the elections writes Rowan Callick.

Will China feature in this year’s federal election campaign, which has already begun well before a date has been set? Probably very little, if at all.
This may be a good thing, following the 2009 “annus horribilis” for the relationship, with the Chinalco, Stern Hu, investment, Defence White Paper and Rebiya Kadeer issues striking popular but negative chords in both countries.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has begun to sense that the time is right for a longer-term, less defensive approach, with his decision to give in late April the 70th George Morrison Address at his alma mater, the Australian National University, on “Australia and China in the World.” Australia’s success in growing its economy through the “global financial crisis” – which proved more of a North American and European crisis in the end – has defused some of the anxiety that exacerbated the concerns in 2009 over the “China threat.” Especially since China’s own robust demand for Australian resources and energy exports has driven a significant part of that success.
China was becoming especially concerned last year that Australia’s longstanding essential bipartisanship on the relationship was being placed at risk. But that threat appears to have receded, with opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop, the deputy leader of the Liberals – who, significantly, comes from Western Australia, the key beneficiary of Chinese economic engagement – adopting a cautious but essentially positive position on China.
And leader Malcolm Turnbull, who in the mirror opposite of Rudd was worried about Chinese state enterprises’ investment, but less concerned about its military ambitions, has been replaced by Tony Abbott, who appears to have taken little interest in international affairs at all, in political terms. The coalition has within its team, however, Nationals’ Senator Barnaby Joyce, who has even appeared – before he joined the shadow Cabinet – in TV adverts funded by an ardent economic nationalist, lambasting Chinese investment in Australia. His position may not have changed much, but he is sufficiently ambitious to subordinate for the common coalition good, his views on what remains a subject of marginal importance for his new responsibilities of infrastructure, water and regional development.
Rudd – despite the strong expectations of his using his Chinese language skills to make Chinese relations a strong element of his first term – has largely delegated relating with China to Trade Minister Simon Crean and to a lesser extent Treasurer Wayne Swan, who formerly worked with the late Mick Young, the member of the Bob Hawke Cabinet who was most palpably committed to building relations with China.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has only visited once, although he is also set to represent the government at the Shanghai Expo.
The election appears likely, at this stage, to be dominated by domestic debates, as usual – this time about health, about federal-state relations, about education, about the government’s capacity to implement its ambitious programs, about government debt. Even climate change, a big issue at the last election, which could draw China into the debate, is no longer pressing within the electorate. Much of the credit for the emergence through the disquieting episodes of 2009 into today’s calmer waters for the relationship, must go to China’s diplomatic team in Australia, led by ambassador Zhang Junsai – a highly experienced, pragmatic group who have learned remarkably rapidly, what works and what doesn’t, in representing their country’s interests.
A stunning example of that practical commonsense, is the response to “The 10 Conditions of Love,” the bio-pic on exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who was last year blamed by Beijing for instigating deadly riots in Xinjiang. When the film was scheduled to be shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival, it triggered furious but counter-productive phone calls from Chinese officials. When its screening was announced for May 6 by ABC TV – making it viewable by massively more people – the diplomats kept quiet.
Deakin University academic He Baogang says that they had quickly discovered that hitting a basketball made it bounce back up, but no-one noticed it simply lying still.
The underlying strength of the relationship is demonstrated by the slight but continuing rise in Chinese student numbers in Australia, despite the 2009 controversies and despite the international economic uncertainties. Chinese parents are voting with their cash. The unresolved issues between the countries include the five-year-old negotiations for a free trade agreement and setting a framework for mutual investment.
Despite Australia’s holding the fourth biggest bloc of funds in the world, thanks to its mandatory superannuation, its investment in China remains paltry, while China’s appetite for Australian resources remains unsatiated but controversial, given that virtually all the corporations involved are owned by the central government. Such questions are unlikely to gain much play during an election campaign. But it would be handy to receive mandates to engage China more closely on such issues.
After the election, it would be exciting to assess the prospects for working together with China – on governmental and corporate levels – in third countries, on projects that would benefit all three parties. Perhaps Australia could after the election host a visit by Xi Jinping, likely to become the next top leader after the next party congress in 2012, at which such a concept could be endorsed. And a visit from Bo Xilai, at which he might speak about his intriguing drive to flush corruption out from Chongqing, would provide a further boost for the relationship.

*Rowan Callick is the Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian.


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