Calmly Worrying About China Is Good for All of Us

 In China, Environment, P5

Getting other coun­tries to openly defer to China’s inter­ests has long been viewed by China’s lead­ers as a symbol of their inter­na­tion­al worth. When that can no longer be done, or at least becomes much harder to do, what then? Will the con­tin­ued shift in cap­i­tals around the world away from doing any­thing to main­tain a ‘good rela­tion­ship’ with China towards a new hard-headed approach be accept­ed by Beijing in time, or will it change China’s view of its exter­nal envi­ron­ment in ways that make life more chal­leng­ing for all of us?

This ques­tion is a source of much anx­i­ety around the world, and the reason why the inter­na­tion­al system looks more pre­car­i­ous now than it has been in decades. All gov­ern­ments need to be as pre­pared as they can be for an answer they do not like.

For Australia, that means con­tin­u­ing to demon­strate our will­ing­ness to defend our sov­er­eign­ty and nation­al inter­ests in ways that are con­sid­ered, con­sis­tent and easy to under­stand. It also means putting for­ward an Australian vision of the future of the region and the world that helps more Australians appre­ci­ate the nature of the China chal­lenge and the con­text in which the bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship has dete­ri­o­rat­ed.

A larger cross-sec­tion of the Australian com­mu­ni­ty needs to under­stand that our words and actions are now linked to China’s con­cep­tions of its threat envi­ron­ment in ways that they were not before. And that we are in the nerve-strik­ing phase of a long game that com­part­men­tal­ism and short-sight­ed­ness will not help us play well. We are more vul­ner­a­ble than we used to be, but nec­es­sar­i­ly so.

The more widely this is under­stood, the more likely calls from some Australian busi­ness lead­ers for Canberra to just ‘fix’ the rela­tion­ship through any means will be seen for what they are: mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Australia’s long-term nation­al inter­ests and the scale and nature of the chal­lenge we are facing.

Raising public aware­ness is in some respects more impor­tant and useful than trying to pen­e­trate the black box of Chinese gov­ern­ment deci­sion-making, and cer­tain­ly easier. Much time and energy can be wasted pre­dict­ing how China will react to the next ‘crossed line’ or whether a pun­ish­ment for one indis­cre­tion was intend­ed to signal some­thing to some­one else — often to no avail. But making people think about what it is about China’s polit­i­cal system that makes a gen­uine­ly con­struc­tive bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship dif­fi­cult to build serves prac­ti­cal func­tions.

A more attuned public under­stand­ing of the Chinese government’s modus operan­di would cer­tain­ly make it more dif­fi­cult for Beijing to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion intend­ed to make us second-guess our own posi­tions and deci­sions. This has been done in the past to open divi­sions in the Australian com­mu­ni­ty on issues impor­tant to China or to simply get us to dwell on iso­lat­ed sin­gu­lar devel­op­ments at the expense of other, more impor­tant ones. It would also help pro­tect against the prospect of one Australian polit­i­cal party decid­ing to define itself in oppo­si­tion to another’s China policy — some­thing Beijing is hoping will even­tu­al­ly happen and would be eager to exploit if or when it does.

Australia’s rela­tion­ship with China is com­plex and evolv­ing. Popular opin­ion of it needs to be informed and mea­sured, not hard and pan­icked. Worrying calmy togeth­er about the right things at the right time will pre­vent the mis­trust of China that polling indi­cates has long been present in the Australian com­mu­ni­ty from mor­ph­ing into self-defeat­ing fear and anger.

And it will prob­a­bly make us feel better.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute source|articles

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