The China Question: The Greatest Challenge to Our Generation

It was the Roman poet Phaedrus who coined the saying, “Things are not always what they seem.” You’d be forgiven for thinking he was talking about Australia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In Quadrant last September I contended that a nation’s foreign policy is an outward expression of its values: a reflection of its people, who they are and what they believe in. I argued that the starting point to addressing the China question lay in a clear understanding of who we are as a nation.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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We also need a clear understanding of China. If we’re to successfully navigate our way through the myriad complexities of the Australia–China relationship, we need to try and see the world through Chinese eyes. When we do, it is obvious that China is playing an entirely different game from the one we’re playing.

More than most countries, and certainly far more than Australia, China defines itself through the lens of history. The Chinese interpretation of their national story shapes their view of the world and, in turn, their foreign policy.

The Chinese are immensely proud of their ancient civilisation and their historical role as the “middle kingdom” or “celestial empire”. To us this may be an interesting historical footnote, but to the Chinese it is central to their identity. After all, in Chinese Mandarin, the name for China consists of two characters pronounced zhongguo, which translates into “middle country”. It’s not until you learn Mandarin that you appreciate the cultural and historical references embedded in Chinese characters. For everyday Chinese, the past is never far away.

As the former middle kingdom under heaven, the Chinese remember themselves as not only possessing the greatest power and most advanced economy on earth up to at least the sixteenth century, but also as the most culturally and morally superior civilisation. The Chinese believe they enjoy a clear line of sight between their past and their future; a belief that their history preordains their destiny.

This partly explains why the risk of the United States and China falling into a Thucydides Trap seems almost irresistible. That is, as Harvard academic Graham Allison explains, when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power, it tempts war.

China’s identity is not all about the glory days, however. It is also about past tragedy and hardship.

In addition to devastating natural disasters, China bears deep scars from man-made trauma. What’s worth noting, however, is that China’s teaching of its historical trauma accentuates stories of foreign powers egregiously injuring the Chinese people, yet masks stories of China’s self-inflicted injuries.

This has led the PRC to become more assertive and its diplomats more aggressive as China’s international status has risen. Beyond ongoing border disputes with India and of course its precarious relationship with Taiwan, the PRC’s deepest ill-will is saved for Japan and the West, in line with its historical grievances.’

Much authoritative commentary over recent times refers to the enormous power of Xi Jinping, with some equating his authority to Mao Zedong’s. Xi has been consolidating his authority and it could well be true that he’s the most powerful leader since Mao, who founded the PRC. But overstating Xi’s influence risks misjudging the depth and sincerity of China’s new brand of nationalism.

Contrary to popular opinion, the motivation behind the PRC’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” goes far deeper than Xi Jinping. As Seton Hall academic Zheng Wang explains, soon after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a patriotic campaign that, in Deng Xiaoping’s words, was “about what China was like in the old days”. This marked a shift in China’s historical memory to focus on a “century of humiliation” from the First Opium War in 1839 to the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945, during which China was defeated and subjugated by foreign powers.

The patriotic campaign elicited more than deep-seated feelings of victimisation. It changed China’s national identity. The Cold War was over, liberalism had won the day and China’s modernisation forced the Chinese people to rethink their connection to communism.

While its ancient civilisation generated pride in the past and hope for the future, communism’s eroding relevance threatened the legitimacy of the CCP, stripping it of its purpose and its primary tool for mobilising public support. As the late Samuel Huntington once argued, “if the basis for the defining characteristic of a group disappears … the existence of the group is threatened, unless it can find another cause to motivate its members”.

As the CCP leadership transitioned from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin then Hu Jintao and finally Xi Jinping, so too did its “call to arms” from communism to nationalism; from class struggle to a struggle against historical injustices of foreign powers. Xi Jinping encapsulated this new form of Chinese nationalism in his first address to the nation in 2012, where he laid out his vision of achieving “the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation”.

The Chinese dream of great rejuvenation is effectively a slogan that rekindles the glory and trauma of China’s past and places it within a mission statement about the future. After suffering at the hands of foreign powers through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China believes it is time to correct a historical anomaly and reclaim its rightful position in the world.

It’s not as simple as envisaging a seamless transition into the position of global hegemon, displacing the United States. They want to change the international rules-based order. Xi Jinping describes it as a “new model of global partnership” and a “new model of major countries’ relations”.

Much has been written about Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream, and it is the vision to which the CCP and thus the Chinese people anchor to. Again, this is far bigger than Xi. It was Jiang Zemin who first sought to reframe the CCP’s purpose to be “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Hu Jintao doubled down on the phrase when he became CCP leader in 2002 and Xi Jinping later made it his own. This is not to doubt Xi’s extraordinary power, but to underscore the point that China’s new brand of nationalism—based on a master narrative of national humiliation and a dream of rejuvenation—has been inculcated in the Chinese psyche far more deeply.

Despite the world being in the grip of a global pandemic and Australia experiencing the greatest hit to its economy since the Great Depression, our greatest challenge is not COVID-19. Our nation’s greatest challenge lies in the China question.

When thinking about the Australia–China relationship, one must never forget that we are playing very different games. Henry Kissinger described it best when he compared the Chinese board game of wei qi to the Western game of chess. While chess is about total victory by trapping the opposing king, wei qi is about relative advantage achieved by strategically encircling your opponent. In chess, all your pieces are fully deployed as you seek to destroy your opponent’s pieces in a series of head-on clashes on the way to checkmate. In wei qi, not all pieces are deployed and numerous contests take place simultaneously as hundreds of stones are moved around the board with each side seeking to mitigate the other’s potential. Wei qi is a more protracted game and is played on a far wider strategic landscape.

The chess versus wei qi analogy applies to Australia and China, and is reflected in divergent views of our relationship. To Australia, the relationship has problems that need to be fixed. To the PRC, the relationship poses a threat that needs to be arrested.

When the Chinese embassy published a list of fourteen grievances about Australia last November, they included our decision to secure our 5G network, our foreign interference legislation and our call for an independent review into COVID-19. Such actions were taken in our national interest and they reflected our values as a nation. It’s the same with our positions on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan; they are expressions of who we are, our values and beliefs.

China interprets things differently. To the PRC, our actions have been read as attempts on behalf of the West, in particular the United States, to humiliate China and hinder its rejuvenation. While such an interpretation is patently inaccurate, it’s how the Chinese see the world. The great unknown in all this is the extent to which the CCP leadership has come to believe their own propaganda in this regard. Either way, it works for them.

Nothing encourages internal unity like an external “other” and for China this comes in the form of the United States and, by extension, other liberal democracies especially those allied militarily to the United States. When China’s ambassador, Cheng Jingye, chastised Australia last April for calling for an independent investigation into COVID-19, he accused Australia of “teaming up” with anti-Chinese elements. “It’s a kind of pandering to the assertions that are made by some forces in Washington,” he said. “Siding with” and “doing the bidding of” the United States are regular complaints of the PRC. These accusations also featured prominently in their list of fourteen grievances.

Framing Australia as if we were an extension of the United States allows the PRC to effectively dismiss our positions. By wrapping Australia into their master narrative, it triggers a deeply emotional element in the Chinese psyche. This mobilises support in China, but it limits their diplomatic options abroad. Invoking past wrongs perpetrated by foreign powers and suggesting we are part of a foreign plot that threatens China leaves its diplomats with little room to move, forcing them to take a hard line. In turn, they find it hard to compromise without looking weak, tensions escalate and a zero-sum game starts to emerge. This is what has happened to the Australia–China relationship.

This is a weakness in the PRC playbook. Like any country, the PRC is at its best when it enjoys strategic flexibility. But China’s new brand of nationalism constrains them by invoking emotional triggers about historical humiliation and threats from the West.

This helps explain why the PRC prefers dealing with difficult issues behind closed doors—that is, it maximises their strategic options. The CCP comes under pressure when conflicts become public, especially if they touch emotional triggers of nationalism. Under those circumstances, they have to stay true to the patriotic fervour they have engendered or risk looking weak and losing face.

The PRC’s narrative works best at home in China, but that hasn’t stopped them from using it abroad. How else can they seek to justify coercive behaviour against countries like Australia?

The world is watching as the PRC punishes us. By teaching us a lesson, they also warn others about the consequences of getting China offside. What’s more, they can’t afford to be seen to lose, which makes the situation even more difficult to resolve through peaceful negotiation.

It hasn’t escaped the world’s attention, however, that the PRC is picking on Australia rather than tackling the United States head on. In doing so, the PRC is practising the very behaviour it purports to oppose; it is bullying a smaller power against which it has no historical grievance, a country that has never done it harm. This is another reason why it’s so vitally important for the PRC to frame Australia into their narrative of grievances and foreign plots—to do otherwise risks diluting their moral authority in the eyes of the world.

The PRC has unleashed punitive penalties against everything from our barley and beef to coal and copper ore, to crayfish, timber, sugar and wine. It may appear a simple strategic decision for the PRC to use economics as leverage, given our over-reliance on the China market. But the PRC’s strategy is more multi-layered.

First, while everyone knows the PRC is playing political games, their punitive trade sanctions are dressed up as “technical” complaints in order to provide cover under international law. Second, they know there’s a limit to how we can respond. In Australia, we separate government from business, whereas in China they are both steered by the one hand—the CCP. This gives them more strategic levers to pull by leveraging trade to advance their political objectives. Third, the PRC is trying to throw us off our centre of gravity to create a psychological advantage.

As the Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu advised, “cause division among them”—and this is precisely what the PRC’s punitive trade measures aim to achieve. The PRC is seeking to sow division between Australian businesses and the Australian government so the former might pressure the latter into folding. As the PRC’s trade sanctions have bitten over the last twelve months, senior business leaders have lined up to offer the Australian government gratuitous advice about how to improve relations with China. Every time this happen, the PRC smiles.

Business leaders with experience in China have a role to play. I spent much of my twenty-plus years in business in and around China, and I have sat across negotiating tables from many Chinese companies, including Huawei and ZTE. I therefore appreciate the value that business leaders have to offer, especially if they have been around the block a few times. However, entering the public debate with motherhood statements about the need for improved relations and cultural tips about the notion of “saving face” and the Chinese preference for addressing delicate topics behind closed doors, is not helpful.

This is not to spurn the good intentions of Australian businesses that are eager to see bilateral relations improve. In fact, what some in government do not realise is that many business people, especially Australian expats, hold Australian politicians in low regard. This was the case when I lived abroad and I doubt it’s changed since. It is therefore incumbent on politicians not only to keep engaging with business associations and companies that trade with China, but to do so more frequently and candidly.

Business needs to be confident that the government knows what’s going on, that we understand the PRC is using trade for political purposes and that we will stand by those sectors being targeted. It’s also important that business understands the broader strategic game being played by the PRC so they might appreciate the rationale behind the government’s positions.

Senior business leaders who deal with China could provide invaluable assistance with efforts to improve bilateral relations, using their personal networks and experience. But they should never be commissioned to lead the nation’s efforts in this regard because the game the PRC is playing is ultimately a political one.

This leads me to three basic principles to help guide our approach to resolving the China question. First, we should reject the CCP’s framing of Australia. Second, we should stand firm against the CCP’s attempts at coercion. Third, we should look for avenues to renew the Australia–China relationship.

The first principle relates to framing. It’s one thing for the CCP to foster a brand of Chinese nationalism anchored to memories of foreign humiliation, but to imply Australia was party to any traumatic past fails any test of logic, let alone evidence.

When China’s “century of humiliation” began with the outbreak of the First Opium War in 1839, Australia was still a penal colony. We were in the final throes of establishing the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900 when Allied forces of Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Austria-Hungary invaded Beijing to relieve besieged foreign legations and end the Boxer Rebellion. By the time China’s century of humiliation was coming to an end, both Australia and China were fighting against Japan. Atomic bombs landing on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Emperor Hirohito’s capitulation on August 15, 1945, which effectively ended both the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

It is also untrue that we do the bidding of the United States. We have good reason to be proud of our relationship with the United States; it is our closest ally, largest foreign investor and a like-minded nation with common values, and its presence in the Indo-Pacific and participation in international institutions provide much-needed security and stability. But to claim we do their bidding is factually wrong and it is offensive as it suggests a weakness in our national character that does not exist.

Ever since Scott Morrison’s first major speech on foreign affairs as Prime Minister, he has consistently said Australia does not see the world through a binary prism, as if it has to choose between the United States and China. In a speech to a British think-tank, the Policy Exchange, last November, the Prime Minister said:

Our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States … It’s as if Australia does not have its own unique interests or views as an independent sovereign state. This is false and needlessly deteriorates relationships.

It’s also worth remembering the words of Foreign Minister Marise Payne as she stood next to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last July in Washington, speaking about the Australia–United States relationship. “We have a demonstrable track record of making decisions in our interest,” she said. “We don’t agree on everything—that’s part of a respectful relationship.” These are hardly the words of an Australian Prime Minister and Australian Foreign Minister playing lapdog to the United States.

Australia should categorically reject any attempt by the PRC to drag us into their master narrative about national humiliation and threats from the West. Unless we immediately dismiss any such claim every time it’s raised, we risk it becoming a permanent feature of China’s narrative and thus provide the PRC with a degree of legitimacy for taking a hard line against us.

The second principle I advocate to guide our approach to resolving the China question is to stand firm in the face of coercion. When the PRC seeks to punish Australia with unfair trade sanctions, we must not back down. There is something unique in our DNA; we Australians are a warm, friendly and humble people, but put our backs against a wall and we become fiercely defiant. Where the PRC adopts coercive tactics, we should call them out for their bullying behaviour. Where possible, we should initiate proceedings against them through the World Trade Organisation or other relevant international institutions. This is why we need a rules-based system.

Defiance is important for two reasons. First, we cannot gift the PRC a psychological advantage because they will use it against us, time and time again. History shows that if you capitulate to a bully, you will be bullied again. Second, since the PRC is playing a global game in which we are being used as a proxy for the West, any acquiescence on our part will only strengthen their resolve to change the existing liberal-oriented rules-based international order in their favour.

The third principle I propose is to seek to renew relations. Regardless of the game the PRC is playing, we should work towards renewing the Australia–China relationship. A total economic decoupling and an irreversibly bad relationship are not in our interest. China is, after all, the largest and most powerful country in our region. I believe that an enduring and positive relationship, built on mutual respect, is in our interest and theirs.

Renewing the relationship, however, doesn’t mean turning back the clock to the “good old days”. The Australia–China relationship will never be the same again and so the relationship needs to be rebuilt for the future, not the past.

In addition to the recommendations I outlined in Quadrant last September, I believe Australia and China should agree on one or two activities on which to collaborate.

One possibility is working together to identify an infrastructure project in a developing country that is transparent and open, maintains robust standards, meets genuine needs and can be jointly delivered. To minimise any risk to our interests, the country should be comfortably beyond our backyard and therefore not in the Pacific Islands, the project should not require any transfer of intellectual property, and it should be governed under our existing bilateral Memorandum of Understanding for such projects, not the Belt and Road Initiative.

Another possibility is establishing forums of exchange between Australian parliamentarians and our Chinese counterparts so that we can start having more regular dialogue at the political level, beyond minister-to-minister communication.

A structured series of discussions between delegations from both sides would deepen mutual understanding while providing an opportunity to advance our strategic interests. Over time, the exchange could widen to include leaders from each country’s business sector and civil society, and link to the annual Australia–China High Level Dialogue which has been co-chaired by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and former PRC Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Zhaoxing.

The China question is the greatest challenge of our generation. If we’re to answer it successfully, we must better understand China, who they are and how they play the game. To see the world through their eyes is not to blur our own vision, but to see with greater clarity. If we fail to appreciate the way they see the world, we will be navigating in the dark.

I started this essay with the Roman poet Phaedrus circa 370 BC, so let me finish with the Chinese philosopher Confucius circa 470 BC, who said, “He who cannot describe the problem will never find the solution to that problem.”

Ted O’Brien is the MHR for the Queensland seat of Fairfax in the Commonwealth Parliament. He wrote “The China Question and the National Interest” in the September issue

11 thoughts on “The China Question: The Greatest Challenge to Our Generation

  • Wayne says:

    There is no solution to the Chinese problem while the CCP is still in control. We can admire and be friends with the Chinese people while despising the CCP. That should be our position.

    Their actions on trade have been awake up call to all Australians and to our trade businesses in particular. Not to forget the ridiculous over reliance on Chinese students at our universities. The over reliance on China has been starkly highlighted and forced businesses to seek alternative markets with so far overall good results. I would hope that once alternative markets have been established we will foster those markets to ensure our over reliance on China does not return. This in future may require us to set quotas on exports to China to ensure that diversity of markets is maintained.

    China has basically been eating the West’s lunch for a generation and while we cannot turn back the clock it is not too late to start to reign in their free ride

  • Harry Lee says:

    It is useful to focus on key current matters.
    The CCP, or any Chinese government, must feed and control 1.4 Bn people, on a piece of real estate that is extremely poor in requisite natural resources. And China’s military power is exceedingly weak -it simply cannot project sustained force over-long distances, esp over water.
    So, the main threat from China is from its agents infiltrating the institutions of all other countries. Any Chinese government will want to dominate decision-making in all other countries as to control of flows and prices of its imports and exports.
    Obviously, the CCP infiltration of Australian institutions and local Chinese communities is well-advanced.
    These are key matters that our pro-Western politicians and other interested pro-Western parties should focus on.
    It is obvious that there is a dominant pro-China/anti-Westernist faction in the ALP.

  • Anthony says:

    “We shall fight them on the beaches;
    We shall fight them on the land… We shall never surrender!”
    …with apologies to Winston Churchill.

  • ianl says:

    >”We can admire and be friends with the Chinese people while despising the CCP. That should be our position”

    Yes. That’s my view for over two decades now since I first worked with Chinese geologists and engineers.

    Then came Xi.

  • lbloveday says:

    “There is something unique in our DNA; we Australians are a warm, friendly and humble people, but put our backs against a wall and we become fiercely defiant”.
    Unfortunately I think that is in the past; I don’t see it in the majority of young Australians.

  • lbloveday says:

    ” China’s military power is exceedingly weak -it simply cannot project sustained force over-long distances, esp over water”.
    45 years ago, China exploded a bomb with around 250 times the yield of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima and have ICBMs with the ability to strike the USA, let alone Australia. They could take out Canberra and suggest to the rest of Australia they concede control to China or suffer a similar fate.
    Global Firepower ranking utilizes over 50 individual factors to determine a given nation’s PowerIndex (‘PwrIndx’) score with categories ranging from military might and financials to logistical capability and geography.
    They rank:
    1. USA
    2. Russia
    3. China
    4. India
    5. Japan
    16 Indonesia
    17 Saudi Arabia
    18 Spain
    19 Australia
    Pretty well all other military rankings have USA, Russia and China as the top 3 and in that order. Far from “exceedingly weak” I suggest, but if you think their military is indeed “exceedingly weak”, how would you rate Australia’s?

  • Harry Lee says:

    Yes, now keep in mind three truths:
    1) China needs the rest of the world, esp the West, v esp the USA, more than non-China needs China.
    2) Agents of the CCP are infiltrating, deeply, all of our institutions as well as all local Chinese groups/communities here in Australia.
    3) The Chinese military cannot project sustainable, substantive force beyond its shores.

  • Harry Lee says:

    lbloveday, Australian military might, all up, in terms of acting alone in any matter beyond local policing in our region, is trivial.
    The SASR and the Commando Regiment are excellent in their own terms, and useful in restricted theatres.
    Also, re China:
    China does not have the naval tonnage and air-cover to sustain any military operations over any distance, not even to Taiwan.
    China has no incentive to nuke Canberra, or any other place.
    China needs the rest of the world to send it food, science and technology, raw minerals and fossil fuels.
    China needs the rest of the world to buy its manufactures -in ever-increasing quantities.
    Please consider these facts.

  • Harry Lee says:

    lbloveday, please also consider the fact that the capacity of the USN to project conventional fire-power over very long distances exceeds the combined long-distance fire-power of All Other Navies in the World -by more than a factor of ten.
    Then add in the USN nukes, the USAF, and the US Space Command.
    Lot of people who say they know about relative military strength actually know nuthin’ -they do not know what to count, or even why to count what they count.
    Bit like people who say that GDP is a sound measure of economic productivity/strength.
    Now, when assessing China’s strengths and weaknesses, please consider these facts:
    The USA’s agricultural resources could feed more than three billion people in perpetuity, if deployed to do so.
    China’s bit of geography cannot feed its own 1.4 Bn.
    And the (limited) farm output of China requires five times the high-cost chemical inputs (fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides etc, oil required for which China must import) than does the USA, averaged over all applications.
    Back to military matters:
    While this might change with advances in the US Space Command, the USA currently needs its Australian-based communication and listening posts -unique locations on Earth. Because of that necessity, any Chiese attempt to fully control Australian soil would be halted by the US military.
    Plus, the USA will always be keen to use Australian naval ports and facilities for its long-distance bombers -and all relevant support factors.
    US bases in Australia, hard and soft, will retain their value in the bigger scheme of plausible US deterrence against any Chinese attempt to control real estate much beyond the South China Sea.
    Anyway, last thing the CCP wants is a Big Shooting War -as such would disrupt/halt its critically essential imports and exports and consequent cash flow.

  • Harry Lee says:

    How many Australian politicians -of the nominally pro-Western variety- realise that China now dominates more of what happens in Australian politics, and in the public and private sectors, than did Britain after 1901.
    One does not expect a denizen of the news/opinion media to possess the gumption to describe such a problem and its consequences, but one expects that a proper citizen would.
    Ditto a proper pro-Western politician.
    (Competition: A prize for the list of the ten most important problems facing Australia that Australians, including pro-Western politicians, have defined in ways that miss the most significant aspects of said problem.)

  • rachaelkohn says:

    At some point one has to accept that the Chinese people cannot be neatly differentiated from the CCP which has indoctrinated, terrorised and controlled them over many decades. It is yet another self deluding Western attitude that believes it’s just the regime that needs to change and we will be alright. Sorry, but anyone who thinks that is in denial of the magnitude of the problem we face.

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