“China has lived without Australia for thousands of years and could no doubt do so again.”
This quote, by a high-ranking Chinese minister, seems to capture the current state of Australia-China relations.
But the quote isn’t recent. Far from it. It was said by then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen 33 years ago.
“We seem to have almost entirely forgotten that there was a rollercoaster of a relationship with Beijing well before [President] Xi Jinping came to power,” James Curran, a professor of modern history at the University of Sydney, tells ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.
Professor Curran charts this turbulent relationship in a new book, Australia’s China Odyssey: From Euphoria to Fear, which features the Qian Qichen quote in its opening pages.
He says as China has become “a lot more assertive and aggressive in flexing its strategic muscles” in the past few years, it’s important to look back at the relationship.
“Of course, this is altogether a brand new China and one like we haven’t had to deal with before … But it’s important for policymakers, and for the debate generally, to have an understanding of the rich, complex and complicated history from which the present has emerged.”
So here’s how a selection of Australian PMs have dealt with Beijing over recent decades.
Gough Whitlam: A new direction
The 1960s was the height of the Cold War and anxieties about communist China pervaded Australian politics.
Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies warned of the “downwards thrust of Chinese communism” — that communism could spread down through Asia.
Professor Curran says at the time, Australia was “among the best and most proficient red-baiters in the world. [We were] more anti-China, in fact, than the Americans”.
But this changed with almost lightning speed thanks to Gough Whitlam.
In 1971, Whitlam, who was then the Labor opposition leader, visited China. He was among the first Western leaders to make high-level contact with the communist government (Whitlam quipped he was “happy to be a pathfinder for Nixon,” who went on to visit soon after).
As Professor Curran sums up in his book: “Whitlam was determined to break down the Cold War fear and animosity that had gripped the national psychology on China for the preceding two decades”.
After Whitlam took office in 1972, he announced Australia would recognise China’s communist government and establish diplomatic relations, marking a major thaw between the two countries.
In 1973, he became the first Australian prime minister to visit communist China, declaring “Australia is moving in a new direction”.
Or as Professor Curran states: “Almost overnight, China morphed from threat to opportunity, from enemy to partner”.
Malcolm Fraser: The surprise packet
Professor Curran says that Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal prime minister who served from 1975 to 1983, was one of the biggest surprise packets when it comes to the Australia-China relationship.
“You couldn’t get a more classic Cold War warrior than Malcolm Fraser. This was someone who declared Gough Whitlam was a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ when he went to China in 1971,” Professor Curran says.
“And then five years later, there was Malcolm Fraser in China, proposing a quadrilateral pact with the Chinese, the Americans and the Japanese to try and counter the Soviet Union.”
He says Fraser ended up “making speeches saying, ‘in our relations with other countries, ideology is not important — what counts is the national interest’.”
Bob Hawke: From close friends to a brutal massacre
In his book, Professor Curran says Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke “had the kind of access to the senior Chinese leadership of which his predecessors could only dream”.
“So close was he to his counterparts that in 1985, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, held Hawke’s hand in the car from the airport in Perth following his arrival.”
It was on this visit that the two leaders “launch[ed] what was to become the bedrock of their countries’ economic ties: the iron ore trade”.
By the mid-1980s, China had become Australia’s third largest export destination.
Then in 1989, the relationship was shaken like never before.
During the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese government brutally attacked and killed scores of people who were demonstrating for democratic reforms.
Professor Curran sums up Hawke’s response:
“[He] broke down and cried when reading from a diplomatic cable reporting the ghastly scenes of what had taken place. And he made a personal decision, against all the bureaucratic advice, that some 20,000 students and other Chinese temporary residents should be allowed to stay in Australia.”
It was in the fallout of the Tiananmen Square massacre that then-Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen said his country could live without Australia.
But Professor Curran says that the bedrock of close economic ties meant the relationship went on to “recover remarkably quickly”.
John Howard: Trade, trade, trade
Under Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, the relationship between the two countries flourished.
Professor Curran cites an “initial scrap” with the Chinese leadership over the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, but after that, it was all about one thing.
“[Howard] put commercial benefit and economic exchange at the top of the relationship,” Professor Curran says.
“He basically said to Jiang Zemin, the Chinese leader at the time, ‘Look, we’re so different in culture and civilisation and language, so different in size in terms of population, it’s going to be very difficult for us to thread or connect those bonds. But we can do business’.”
And the Chinese agreed.
“Howard had a China that was still on its economic rise. It was looking for international acceptance. It was still abiding by Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of ‘hide your strength and bide your time’. It wasn’t bearing its nationalist teeth,” Professor Curran says.
“And Australia did very well.”
From 1996 to the end of Howard’s time in office in 2007, trade with China grew by 526 per cent and it had become Australia’s largest trading partner.
Kevin Rudd: A mixture of approaches
When Labor’s Kevin Rudd was elected Prime Minister in 2007, expectations for the relationship were sky high.
It was the first time that a major Western country elected a Mandarin-speaking national leader, and one who had a deep knowledge of and connections to the country.
“Rudd had a tremendously sophisticated understanding of [China’s] history and culture,” Professor Curran says.
“And yet the management of that relationship under him was pretty disastrous for quite a time.”
He calls 2009 an “annus horribilis” for the relationship, including Rio Tinto blocking an investment from China’s state-owned Chinalco, the arrest in China of Australian businessman Stern Hu and Rudd’s criticism of China’s human rights record.
But later, under Rudd, “the relationship was stabilised”, he says.
“The initiative for that did come from the Chinese side. Rudd basically signed on to the Howard principles in stabilising the relationship … He put commercial benefit and economic exchange at the top of the relationship.”
And Professor Curran gives Rudd credit for being “quite prescient about the problems coming down the line”.
“He did tell the Americans, as Wikileaks showed, ‘We’re going to need to be prepared to use brute force if necessary … I think [China] is going to become more aggressive and we need to be able to plan for that’.”
Since 2017, and in the ensuing years of the Turnbull and Morrison governments, relations with China have taken a nosedive.
A series of tit-for-tats included Scott Morrison calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 and China imposing trade sanctions on significant Australian export industries.
As the relationship became more and more strained, then-Minister for Defence Peter Dutton warned last year that “every major city in Australia, including Hobart, is within range of China’s missiles”.
According to Professor Curran, Australia is dealing with a very different China than in years past.
“Xi Jinping’s wielding of supreme power in China and the abrasiveness of his nationalism does present a very different China from the one Australian leaders and officials embraced from the 1970s to 2012,” he writes in his book.
But Professor Curran warns against a “new Cold War” mentality and “the slogans and soundbites” that come with it.
He says stabilising the relationship into something rational and wise is “the challenge of our times”.
“Foreign Minister Penny Wong has spoken in precisely those terms of stabilising,” he says.
“But of course, [Australia] still has the coercive Chinese economic boot on its neck.”
He points out “the [trade] restrictions are still there and there are two Australians who are still arbitrarily detained by Chinese authorities” which he calls “almost in-built blockades against real progress being made”.
He predicts that the future will be rocky and “there’ll be things that Australian governments will have to speak out strongly about, in terms of Chinese behaviour and the Chinese approach to Australia”.
“This stabilisation process will be a long one — I think it will be full of ups and downs.”
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