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  • Mike Lyons



A Brief Historical Background

Through much of its 5000-year history, guided by its Confucian values, China has sought to achieve social harmony. From 221 B.C until 1842 A.D (for 1800 of the last 2000 years), China was the unchallenged centre of gravity in East Asia. By 1820, China produced more than 30% of world GDP, an amount exceeding the combined GDP of Western Europe, Eastern Europe and USA (Kissinger – On China). Despite that, China acquired no overseas colonies and it showed little interest in countries beyond its borders.

However, during the 19th century, China was to suffer the infamous “Century of Humiliation”. It faced major global challenges, from Europe to the west, Russia from the north and Japan from the east.

In 1949, Communist China launched itself into a New World – a new dynasty and a new ideology. Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China saying, “The Chinese people have stood up” but he was to launch the devastating Cultural Revolution.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping became the ruler of China. He reformed the economy and opened up Chinese society, pursuing what he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Within a generation, China become the second-largest economy in the world.

China’s emergence as a Major Power

Xi Jinping was elected to lead the Chinese Communist Party in 2012. In October 2017 he was re-elected to lead the CCP, as it strives to achieve its “Two Centenary Goals” - firstly to build a moderately prosperous society by 2020, and secondly to build a modern socialist country by 2049 (the Centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China). Jinping speaks of the “China Dream” – the great renewal of the Chinese nation and the return of China to its central role in world affairs.

At the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on 18 October 2017, Xi Jinping announced “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world.” As Australia’s Hugh White observes “For Xi Jinping, nothing is more important than China regaining its place as a great power, subordinate to no one, and as the primary power in East Asia” and as Time magazine put it - “The new Silk Road is the purest illustration of Beijing’s expanding influence as Washington is consumed with partisan bickering and fumbles for a coherent foreign policy.”

In a perceptive article by Alan Kohler in November 2017, he noted that not only had China’s Communist autocracy not failed, but it had rescued the global economy over recent years. Capitalism failed in 2008 and it wobbled with Greece’s bankruptcy in 2011. On each occasion, China rewrote the outcome, whilst the so-called developed economies were pumped by up to US$10 trillion of “quantitative easing”! Deng’s genius set up China’s unique combination of market economics and political autocracy. “The American notion of containment, supported by Australia, is both well past its use-by date and absurd, especially for us (Australia). Fashioning a viable, or even vaguely sensible, foreign policy to deal with a non-democratic, successful global economic superpower is one of the key issues facing Western leaders.”

On 30 November 2017 Time trumpeted “CHINA WON”. The cover story went on to say that “China, not the US, is the single most powerful actor in the global economy.” The Chinese authoritarian capitalist model was not supposed to survive, let alone thrive. Today, it’s political and economic system appears to be better equipped and even more sustainable than the American model which has dominated the international system since the end of World War II. Paul Keating rightly contends that Australia should develop a policy of cooperation with China and not one of “resigned reluctance”.

Assertive China?

China has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road infrastructure project, a staggeringly ambitious plan to build a network of highways, railways, ports and pipelines linking Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

In 2016, following the International Court’s rejection of Beijing’s maritime claims in South China Sea, China and Russia held joint naval exercises in the region. Some Americans had previously observed, rightly, that Russia was disgruntled about how it had been treated after 1989, at the end of the Cold War. A bitter Gorbachev, speaking when launching his 2016 book, The New Russia, refers to a lost opportunity to build a safer world – due to the short-sighted gloating by USA. America lost an opportunity to develop a potentially successful partnership with post-Soviet Russia. Arguably, America’s current attitude to a rising China, having emerged from its Century of Humiliation has some parallels. China and Russia have forged closer defence ties as both have come under pressure from US and its allies. In 2014 Russia and China held joint naval exercises in the East China Sea. In May 2015, China and Russia held drills in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, in what many Western officials saw as a show of solidarity following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In August 2016, one paper noted - “What the four-stars (generals) worry about most is the return of great power rivalry and the resurgent militaries of China and Russia”.

The world was rebuilt in the shadow of American power after World War II. A hundred years before that it was the story of the British Empire. During the 21st Century, the defining global story will be China’s rise as a super-state.


China’s Political System

Does attainment of the China Dream require democracy? In Asia there are many examples of countries achieving high-quality governance, high incomes and quality of life under structures which are not democratic. Japan went from a war-torn and impoverished country to the world’s second-largest and second wealthiest economy in four decades under what was effectively a single party state. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore all advanced rapidly and successfully in the total or partial absence of democracy although democracy has subsequently taken hold.

To argue that China should concede to a democratic system, is a way of viewing China’s different political and cultural history through western eyes. It is, after all, the Communist Party which has elevated China to great power status. The Party’s claim to legitimacy, after China’s Century of Humiliation is central to the CCP’s self-conception.

Sydney academic, John Keane (in his 2017 book, When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter) observes:

  • Each year in China there are an estimated 150,000 popular protests – most are peaceful;

  • Observers see a trend in China, towards a form of “post democracy” freed from the curse of “free and fair” elections and “showbiz democracy”

  • It is possible that “democracy made in China” will not only survive, but will thrive;

  • China has been experimenting with a range of democratic tools and combined them with china’s 5000-year culture and civilization;

  • The CCP refers to the kind of disorder produced by liberalism and western values- which would be catastrophic for the Chinese people.

Western democracies are bogged down in dysfunctional governments driven by opinion polls and scandalous journalism – examples are rife - Trump’s America; Australia’s swinging door leadership crises, and it constitutional upheaval over dual citizenship; Britain’s Brexit; and Germany’s struggle to form a coalition government. Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” He also said that “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise.”

Perhaps China’s “post democratic” system will have a real and meaningful place in future world affairs.

Removal of Two-Term Limit

The CCP announcement at the beginning of March 2018, to abolish the two-term limit for the Chinese President has produced an overwhelming reaction, bordering on hysteria in the western media.

Removal of the two-term limit has been widely interpreted in the west as the appointment of Xi Jinping as “emperor” for life amid claims that China has stepped from autocracy to dictatorship! However, the removal of term limits is not the equivalent of automatic continuity – for life. And yet the west chooses to judge China’s different political system, culture and ideology, from its own western viewpoint rather than recognising that China is different and will inevitably pursue its own destiny. Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at Kings College in London remarked - “It is hard to dissent with a leader who himself has tied his destiny to the achievement of a great, powerful country with its status in the world restored. That is precisely what he looks like he is achieving.” Jinping is not another Mao Zedong!

The Chinese people are better off than they have been in centuries, their government is waging a campaign against corruption and the scale and speed of China’s achievement in uplifting 850 million people from poverty is unprecedented in its scope and scale. The World Bank has assessed china’s institutions as well-functioning and reports that its management and political systems have promoted policy effectiveness. Xi Jinping’s leadership role is not irrelevant, nor inconsequential.

In the west, different nations are governed by vastly differing political systems. While the USA imposes a two, 4-year term limit on its presidency, the French presidential limit is two consecutive five-year terms and in the case of Russia, two consecutive six-year terms. In each of France and Russia, there is nothing to prevent an outgoing president being re-elected after a break. In countries which follow the Westminster system, for example England and Australia, no term limits are imposed on the office of prime minister. Australia’s highly respected Robert Menzies served as Prime Minister from 1939-1941 and again for 17 more years from 1949 to 1966 (coinciding with the period when Mao was in power).


Australian Foreign Policy

Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper is littered with multiple references to Australia using and extending its influence abroad. However, when it talks of foreign influence coming into Australia, it refers to “interference”, not influence! Most foreign powers including China USA seek to influence other countries. This is not new but has recently been magnified by the politically motivated anxiety in USA over “Russian interference”. Australia has reacted by introducing laws to prevent foreign influence. China understandably sees itself being targeted by these laws. There can be no doubt that China seeks to influence Australia’s views about China. Surely this is to be expected having regard to the enormous, continuing and growing economic relationship between the two countries. But there is no hint at all of China trying to persuade Australia to adopt a Chinese political model – absolutely none.

The White Paper states that the alliance with USA is central to Australia’s security and “sits at the core of our strategic and defence plan”. The Paper ignores President Trump’s “America first” and his different vision of USA in the world. Somewhat condescendingly, the Paper talks of China being “also vital for Australia” and then, patronisingly observes “China’s capacity to take on responsibility for supporting regional and global security is growing.”

In Hugh White’s recent Quarterly Essay he argues that US has already lost the strategic contest with China for primacy in Asia and that China already dominates this region. Somewhat alarmingly, Alan DuPont (a fellow of the Lowy Institute) argues (without a shred of evidence) that there are signs of China’s willingness to use coercion to achieve its dream and he suggests that this is “a defining feature of its foreign policy”. He contends that China is a proselytising, revisionist power, intent on reshaping the region to reflect its interests and ideology. However, there is no evidence of this or that China will become an oppressive hegemon seeking to impose its values on Australia. This would run contrary to Beijing’s history against proselytising its ideology or exporting its political system. China’s territorial dispute in the South China Sea can hardly qualify as evidence of the actions of a hegemonic power. Paul Keating’s view that China’s conduct was “like a tiger marking its territory” is more realistic.

Then DuPont’s suggests that Australia is putting too many eggs in the China basket. On the contrary, without China, Australia might well be a “basket case” and without China, Australia would certainly not have emerged from the GFC with its glowing economic credentials. As Paul Kelly has opined, the prosperity of Australian households is tied to China’s economy. We need more of China’s trade and more of China’s investment, and there is no place in Australia for anti-China xenophobia.

Criticism of China as hegemonic ignores America’s hegemonic history and its willingness to penalise and impose sanctions on countries which do not do its bidding. It disembowelled Iraq, empowered Iran and helped spark the Arab Spring which led to the dismemberment of Syria, and the collapse of US influence in the region.

Clinging to America

The Australian government has been criticised for adopting US foreign policy as a template for Australia’s foreign policy. During Prime Minister Turnbull’s phone discussion with Trump in January 2017 he is reported to have said “You can count on me. I will be there again and again”. More recently Turnbull has spoken of his commitment to support Trump in North Korea, talking of Australia standing “shoulder to shoulder” with US and saying that the two nations are “joined at the hip”. Turnbull’s eager willingness to support Trump over North Korea confirms the government’s “breezy eagerness to talk up our willingness to go to war without thinking about what that might involve” [Hugh White].

Despite Australia’s willingness to follow USA, Trump took more than 18 months to appoint an ambassador to Australia leading one Australian newspaper to ask, cheekily “Has Washington forgotten about us?”.

Former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans points out that the ANZUS Treaty provides only that each party “will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened in the Pacific” and further, in the event of an armed attack, each “would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes”. Evans suggests that “the alliances are only there to support America’s position in Asia”, not the other way around, and USA “will only ever put itself in harm’s way under the ANZUS Treaty if it sees its own material interests directly threatened”. It should be remembered that during WW II, USA did not respond to Winston Churchill’s desperate pleas for intervention in the face of an existential threat from Nazi Germany. The Americans only entered that war after they were attacked at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.

The real danger for Australia is that USA, relying on Australia’s clingy relationship, will call upon Australia to join with USA in some future, misguided foreign venture, just as Australia has done in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, the stakes for Australia may be far greater. Where, one might ask, does Australia’s national interest lie in all this?

Perhaps Australia’s anxious willingness to please America (at the real risk of offending China) is evidence of what Allan Gyngell’s book calls Australia’s “Fear of abandonment”.

Hugh White is correct when he says that China is not going away, and Australia must adjust to this new order and learn to live with China, making the best of it.

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