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Can Australia and China Speak the Same Language?

John Lee

Autumn is becoming the season for dialogues with China. Just weeks after Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of an annual Strategic Dialogue between China and Australia, Stephen Loosley—former Labor Senator and national president, and current chairman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank—has proposed the establishment of an Australia-China Dialogue in an opinion piece in Monday’s The Australian newspaper. Such an initiative would be modelled on the highly successful Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, a Track 1.5 event (involving officials and influential experts) which takes place each year.

While it is always difficult to argue against such initiatives, especially when it is with our largest trading partner, there are risks and difficulties. While it is a promising idea, we should begin any such initiative with modest expectations, and to emphasise differences is as important as highlighting common interests if there is to be genuine progress in the bilateral relationship.

First things first… what is the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue? Founded by the enterprising Phil Scanlan, the current Australian Consular-General in New York and whose past placements include leadership roles in companies such as Coca Cola Amatil, the AALD brings together senior politicians and parliamentarians, entrepreneurs, journalists and academics from both countries. The programs and discussion covers common interests in foreign and defence policy, economics, society and values. Attracting extremely senior delegates from all these fields, an invitation is a highly coveted and difficult to receive privilege.

Although strongly supported by governments from both countries, the AALD is a privately conceived and organised initiative. This removes some of the unconstructive argy-bargy that can plague dialogues organised by governmental officials who often have narrow and inflexible agendas to promote and pursue. Because the program offers a central role to participants who are not all serving officials, discussion is contested and debate is genuine.

Can the AALD model work between Australia and China? It is clear that there will be several difficulties.

First, the AALD is between two countries with a long history of shared interests and values. It is far easier to find constructive common ground on disagreements between such two countries, meaning that debates and the airing of grievances are likely to be more constructive for having had them. Indeed, both countries come from societies where open debates between officials and other experts is encouraged and seen as a healthy activity. Moreover, because of the extent of operational cooperation in military, multilateral and economic affairs, Australia has a legitimate standing as an essential stakeholder to praise or criticise American policy.

For example, it would have been completely acceptable that there be debate and disagreement within and between both camps about the rotation of American marines through Darwin. More broadly, serving and private citizens from Australia have little hesitation critiquing American regional policy in front senior American officials. Any disagreements, even if heated, are easily accommodated by the deep relationship between the two countries and allies.

Second, and to be blunt, it is difficult to have an honest, upfront conversation in a dialogue setting with Chinese officials and experts when there is disagreement about sensitive issues—which to Chinese officials tend to cover all issues that are in dispute. Chinese officials do not deviate from the official line of reasoning and policy. Likewise, ‘independent’ experts and other stakeholders in the Chinese system depend on Chinese Communist Party (entities) and officials for the position, career and promotion. In a meeting setting, Chinese delegates will not differ from the official state position. Doing so is not healthy for their future career prospects.

It is well known that many Chinese delegates in a variety of contexts will tell you their true viewpoints in an individual conversation, usually over a few drinks. But the value of dialogues such as the one suggested by Loosley is that issues be raised and discussed by delegates in a common setting. This simply will not happen in any prospective Australia-China Leadership Dialogue.

Third, even in a privately organised Dialogue involving senior officials and influential experts, officials in Beijing will insist on decisive input into the agenda. Any deviation in that agreed agenda will cause Chinese delegates to disengage for fear of negative career ramifications. Controversial or even unscripted issues will be stonewalled by Chinese participants in a common setting—or else provoke a straightforward reiteration of official policy. Anyone who has been involved in large meetings involving Chinese officials will agree. This would defeat the whole purpose of a Dialogue organised by an independent entity, a quality which is behind the success of the AALD.

Fourth, while disagreement with influential Americans and American policy carry few negative consequences, the same cannot be said about China. We hold little fears about disagreements between allies and friends. Raising disagreements between two trading partners with disparate strategic interests, values and political systems is a different prospect. When dealing with regional countries, the record shows that Beijing has a poor tolerance for what it will see as ‘disrespect’ by ‘smaller nations’.

If this seems harsh, note the ASEAN Ministers meeting in Hanoi in 2010. When a group of Southeast Asian states led by Singapore dared to bring up concerns about China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, its Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stood up and said, starring directly at Singapore’s then Foreign Minister George Yeo, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” Indeed, China’s diplomatic strategy is to attempt to address difficult issues with countries in Asia bilaterally rather than in discussions involving multilateral, especially American, representation—the latter being the only country more powerful than China in Asia. Australians might be an irreverent lot not willing to take a backward step in any personal interaction. But we have an economy more than six times smaller than China’s, a military budget also more than six times smaller, and a population about 56 times smaller. In China’s view, we are a ‘small’ country. Getting the Chinese to see beyond that is a challenge, and Beijing is unlikely to allow a Leadership Dialogue to be treated as a discussion between equals, as America does at the AALD.

There are already a handful of meetings after which Australian and Chinese delegates emerge using platitudes to reaffirm the common interests of both countries, while completely ignoring awkward differences. We do not need another one of these. Indeed, yet another such initiative could be counter-productive since false amity and deluded preparedness to cooperate tend to lead to bad analysis and policy. Besides, Beijing views comprehensive bilateral initiatives with smaller countries as opportunities to extend its influence over that country, not as opportunities to discuss differences as equals.

This does not mean that Loosley’s idea of an AALD style initiative with China should be completely dismissed. We do need a forum within which Australian and Chinese differences can be aired openly, even if solutions are not at hand. Doing so will at least serve the purpose of lower expectations that a breakthrough in the Australia-Sino comprehensive relationship is imminent – which it is not. It just depends whether Australian government officials and other stakeholders are really prepared to have a genuinely honest conversation with a much more powerful and occasionally prickly partner. If one examines recent bilateral official and Track Two events involving China, the evidence is not entirely encouraging.

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