Standing up for Canberra

Sino Australian relations in the age of Trump

In the early 1960s, in her 20s, my Mum would get on the train once a month to make a 38 kilometre journey to Melbourne’s Chinatown for a knob of fresh ginger.

She did so because she was a new bride and crazy in love with my Dad.

She did so because my Dad was part Chinese and once a month he craved his Little Nana’s stir fry of steak, beans and carrot. My mother had sat at the feet of Little Nana to learn that recipe and was keen to get it right.

That, and congee, which my Dad ate for lunch every Saturday and for breakfast before he went spear-fishing. My Dad’s Little Nana was my grandmother’s mother, my great grandmother.

Little Nana’s family came out to Australia from China in the gold rush in the 1850s, and settled in Ballarat. 2 Little Nana was tiny, as her name suggests, and instilled a passion for black Mao suits in my “Chinese Aunts” – as we called them. One of the abiding memories of my childhood – my grandmother’s wedding photo.

A Depression wedding with limited resources, but a line up of about ten of my Chinese Aunts in matching outfits and my fair skinned, blonde grandmother bride. Australia’s relationship with China has waxed and waned for more than 150 years. It has been through many challenges – regime change, regional war, world war, isolationism, protectionism, liberalisation, unprecedented growth, industrialisation, prosperity and the elevation of millions of people from poverty.

It now faces a new set of challenges, and it is vitally important we get our response to them right to ensure the continuation of our mutual prosperity and the stability and security of our nation, region and world. We live in uncertain times and I can't see that changing in the near future. With the US we have Trump. With China we have island building, one belt one road1 , soft power with a hard edge, investment in the Pacific. 

So how do we respond? I say in a bold, confident way with a crystal clear clarity of purpose. While the world is indeed troubled, I am not fearful about this age of uncertainty. I see this age of uncertainty as presenting an opportunity to Australia. It's an opportunity, in the absence of few, if any, goal posts, to define ourselves. It's an opportunity to have a conversation about ourselves and our place in the world.

To develop a renewed and strong foundation to our bilateral and multilateral relationships, an empowered approach to our strategic environment, an approach that reflects who we are and what we cherish. It’s an opportunity to have a conversation about what we value as Australians.

It's an opportunity to articulate the principles that will operate inside our borders. And how they will translate to our approach beyond them. It's an opportunity to acknowledge that we are indeed a middle power, but a middle power that is confident in asserting how we will engage at 4 home and abroad, and how we think others should engage in Australia and abroad. It is an opportunity to say:

- This is who we are.

- This is what will guide us.

- This is what we will discuss.

- And these are the no go zones.

An explicit statement of how Australia will operate and engage in the national interest in the future. The Foreign Policy White Paper gives us the chance to do that, and it will be a poorer document if it does not. It’s also an opportunity to deepen the relationships that matter. I've found the deeper relationship, the greater the mutual respect, the greater the candour.

We have that in our relationship with the US.

We’ve been trading with the US since the American trading ship Hope first delivered 7,500 gallons of rum to Sydney in 1793 . But our relationship is more than just economic. We speak the same language. We are both democracies. We operate by the same set of international norms. We have fought together in world and regional wars, towards the same end. And we agree to disagree on issues.

Most recently, Labor has made it clear we will speak out when policies are introduced by the US that we do not think are in Australia’s national interest. We have been outspoken on our views on the Trump administration’s immigration and reproductive health policies. And the US has been equally frank. 

Vice President Pence made it clear the Trump administration will honour the Turnbull Government’s asylum seeker agreement, even though it doesn’t admire it. We have a similar depth with Japan. In the cold shadows of the Second World War, we formalised the trading relationship with the 1957 Commerce Agreement.

An extraordinary achievement given we were enemies a little more than a decade before. We broadened it in the 1970s, and since then it has deepened across every sphere – defence, multilateral engagement, tourism, services, investment, academic and scientific endeavour, cultural exchanges. It is now our most mature relationship in Asia. As someone with a long standing interest in India, I wish it were so with India.

Particularly given what we share – democracy, language, rule of law, a colonial past, and of course, cricket. And I wish it were so with China. Currently our relationship with China is largely based on economic diplomacy.

Yes, there is a deepening of the relationship, and I particularly welcome the engagement at the defence level through joint exercises. But it is still a relationship centred on the overwhelming heft of bilateral trade. We are also very different, which complicates the mission.

We speak different languages.

We have different political systems.

We have different judicial systems.

We have different ways of doing business.

China’s is a culture steeped in centuries of rich tradition and subliminal meaning. You only need to go to Geremie Barme's Chapter Motifs in Red Rising, Red Eclipse to gain an appreciation of that. The challenge we have in charting a course for the future of the Sino-Australia relationship rests in part to its lack of depth. So I welcome the very existence of the Australia Centre for China in the World and other academic institutions and think tanks that strengthen our mutual understanding. 

And I welcome the most recent contribution by Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson on the steps Australia needs to take to get the relationship “right”.

But the most pressing challenge is the lack of understanding about the future of the relationship, apart from the obvious economic one. What does China want for the Sino-Australian relationship?

Countless tomes have been written and opinions provided about China's ambitions in the Indo-Pacific from colonisation to the rejuvenation of the Middle Kingdom to power sharing to the status quo. But we do not know. And what does Australia want from the relationship? What kind of relationship best serves our national interests?

Our future ambitions for our country, our region, our world? Australia needs to establish what we want from the relationship and through that the expectations of the relationship. We can second guess as much as we want about what the US will do in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in response to North Korea’s belligerence. 

We can second guess as much as we want about what China’s activity in the South China Sea means. About the New Silk Road Economic Belt. About the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. About the China Dream. About what is happening inside its borders. But we can control, we can determine, how we will operate in this environment, and we do that by setting our own moral compass.

As a public policy practitioner, that is where my focus lies. While the analysis is vitally important, critically important, I need to know how to respond to it. And in these uncertain times, the best I can do is follow the advice of Hugh White from his China In The World Annual Lecture and begin by setting the parameters, the principles.

Advice that was also echoed by Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson. Set the parameters, the principles, through sober thinking, as my colleague Richard Marles calls it, or slow thinking as I like to refer to it. Parameters for how we will operate and respond in the international environment, particularly in the region. Parameters that broadly accept the peaceful rise of China and our strong commitment to the US Alliance.

Australia must always choose in our national interest, and our national interest is served by continuing to advance our relations with both China and the US. Parameters that respect the rule of law, and the predictability the rule of law provides. The fact that we extend the rule of law to provide a global order to determine the outcome of controversy or contest. Freedom of navigation, governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

A commitment to democracy and human rights.

A commitment to freedom of speech.

An open economy.

Freedom of association, freedom of thought and a free media. Equality. Due process. We have to make it clear that we stand by these values, and we are not frightened to lose some skin in protecting them, in defending them. Parameters that define how we expect others to operate internationally, regionally and domestically, here in Australia.

And I say domestically, because I agree with Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson. We have been sending mixed messages to China on a range of issues, particularly investment, and that does not make for good business or good relations.

So I welcome the fact that the Foreign Investment Review Board will now look at potential investments through a strategic as well as economic lens to ensure greater consistency, clarity and transparency in the decision making process. I am particularly keen for the FIRB to provide greater clarity on critical infrastructure – we still don’t have the granularity we need on critical infrastructure compared to other nations.

I’m hoping the revised FIRB process will provide that. And, as Shadow Assistant Minister for Cyber Security and Defence, I am keen to ensure cyber security is factored into that thinking too. We can also control, determine what we want from the relationship to ensure a mutual benefit.

There is so much more we can do to deepen the engagement with China bilaterally, through meaningful linkages between governments, business and civil society. And multilaterally. And again I am looking to the Foreign Policy White Paper to clearly outline, clearly articulate, how we will do that. Because if Australia is to succeed in this age of uncertainty. 

If Australia is to continue to advance its national interests in this age of uncertainty. Australia needs to be resolute, clear and confident in its way forward. We have to clearly define our own strategic and moral line.

Consistently and constantly, in private and in public. And we have to clearly define what we want from our bilateral relationships, with China, with the US, with Japan, with India, with others.

I am proud of Little Nana and celebrate having a small stake in a community with five thousand years of wisdom. It is one of many that make up the tapestry that is Australia.

To quote Gandhi:

“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet.”

Australia allows all people and religions to sweep about its house like the wind, but for that to succeed its feet must be planted in democracy, the rule of secular law, free speech, freedom of association, human rights and equality of the sexes.

Only on that firm foundation can we truly prosper.

Download a copy of this speech.