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Let's keep the rhetoric away from Sino-Australian relations

By Jieh-Yung Lo - posted Wednesday, 29 August 2012

For every prospective leader, foreign policy is a good opportunity to showcase your agenda and leadership style. For Tony Abbott, his comments and demonstrated new approach of engaging China in my view would only cause deeper concern between Australia and our biggest economic trading partner.

As a Chinese Australian, nothing is more important to me than seeing a stable and healthy relationship between Australia and China.

In my view, the complicated relationship between China and Australia also has a knock-on effect to the Australian Chinese community. Invariably, some may get caught between allegiance to their adopted home and loyalty to the motherland.


I have never understood why Australians fear China. China has never had a history of colonisation nor forceful aggressiveness towards its neighbours. We can argue about whether Tibet was aggressive or not. But in terms of direct colonisation and expanding beyond its historical borders, we've never experienced that with China. Mr Abbott should be working towards developing policies on how to engage and embrace a growing China rather than creating hostilities through unnecessary political rhetoric.

With both nations celebrating the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year, China has become Australia's largest trading partner and for the first time in Australian history, China has become the biggest source of permanent immigrants, beating traditional leader the United Kingdom.

Quite recently, our relationship with China has hit a few obstacles. This includes Australia allowing 2,500 US personnel stationed in Darwin and the recent incident with Chinese international students in Sydney. Even before that, Australia's approach to its defence White Paper back in 2009 and the language used in the media during that time referring the growth of China as "threatening" and "intimidating." By stating explicitly the idea that China should embark on political democratic reform now and accusing the Asian giant of "bullying" South-East Asian nations just creates further obstacles and misinterpretations.

The Chinese are concerned about their perception within Australia and do not want to see Australia adopting a hostile attitude towards China, with the possibility of creating splinters in a 40-year bilateral relationship. The reason why the China-Australia relationship is so complex is because of the difference in culture, interpretations and language.

Dealing with China requires solid statesmanship and leadership. Our leaders from both sides of the political fence need to first of all understand the stage of China's social and political evolution.

When it comes to engaging China, Henry Kissinger wrote in his book On China that nations need to recognise the impact of political rhetoric and the perceptions it can create for the bilateral relationship. He also stated that from the American perspective, direct intervention would be neither wise nor productive.


A systematic project to transform China's institutions by diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions is likely to backfire and isolate the very liberals it is intended to assist. Kissinger's advice is that this would be interpreted by a considerable majority through the lens of nationalism, recalling earlier eras of foreign intervention. I too agree with Mr Kissinger, our leaders and representatives should also take caution.

As we work towards embracing the Asian century, we must further integrate our goals and objectives with China at a regional and global stage. Dr Ken Henry believes it would be a mistake to think that geography and/or geology alone will get Australia where we want with Asia and China. China is on track to become the world's largest economy and Australia is well placed to meet its changing needs.

The China growth story will most likely continue over the next 30 years, and new challenges will open new opportunities. As former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd puts it, "the synergies are clear, just as we have been a reliable partner in China's first great economic transformation over the last 30 years, so too are we positioned to be reliable partners in the next phase of China's growth stages into the mid-century."

The continued growth of China will bring about new needs and challenges and Australia's world class service sector is well positioned to provide that opportunity. Education has already demonstrated its success with over 120,000 Chinese students calling Australia home. But Australia can play a greater role in China's new economic vision. It is too risky to get China on the wrong side through continued political rhetoric.

We are making remarkable grounds at a business and economic level, let's also build on our political engagement as well to foster greater bilateral development.

When it comes to dealing with our largest trading partner, we simply cannot view China from an Australian perspective, we need to view it from a Chinese perspective and match it with Australian interests. A strong, successful and prosperous China is in Australia's best interest. It's about corporation, not confrontation.

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About the Author

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Melbourne based writer and Associate Producer of the upcoming documentary film New Gold Mountain - Your Chinese Australia.

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