Cool heads, smart policy will balance China ties

Cool heads, smart policy will balance China ties

EDITORIAL – The Australian – Monday 18 November

The Australian’s Strategic Forum — Navigating the East-West Divide — is timely. Featuring speakers including Paul Keating, Josh Frydenberg, Huawei Australia chairman John Lord and former White House chief strategist John Bannon (in a prerecorded interview), the conference is happening on Monday. Just a few days ago, Beijing banned Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie, chairman of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, and his colleague James Paterson from visiting China next month. While disappointed, the MPs are right to stand their ground and not back away from raising issues such as Hong Kong, Tibet and the fate of a million Uighurs in China. China is refusing to “yield to the colonisation of ideas and values”, warning the MPs that they need to “repent and redress their mistakes” if they want to visit China. Australia, sensibly, is taking a more mature position, ruling out any reciprocal action to ban Chinese politicians.

Tensions in China about human rights are also evident in the suspension of Australia’s human rights engagement with the Chinese government. The Human Rights Technical Co-operation Program, worth $7.4m over three years, was suddenly stopped in August, Geoff Chambers writes today. Suspension of the HRTCP, which was established with Beijing in 1998, comes as other Western countries also face scaling back or disruption of their human rights programs. Such discussions, while beneficial, are pointless if China refuses to participate.

Ahead of the conference, one of the speakers, Dennis Richardson, the former head of the Defence and Foreign Affairs departments and ASIO, said a new balance and a new calm were needed in the debate about China. While calling for a more integrated debate, Mr Richardson was sharply critical of Beijing’s banning Mr Hastie and Senator Paterson. That move, he told Greg Sheridan, highlighted the “propensity of authoritarian governments to be a bit thin-skinned about criticism’’.

Far from suggesting that Australia retreat from its stand, Mr Richardson believes Australia should conduct freedom-of-navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands which Beijing has created in the South China Sea. The US is the only nation to routinely conduct such exercises, while Australia sails close to the 12 nautical mile limit but has not breached it. As Mr Richardson says, artificially built islands cannot generate territorial rights. Australia would be operating within international law to undertake such exercises, he said.

At the same time, as Mr Richardson stressed, it would be a mistake for Australia to view its relationship with China, our nation’s largest export market, in a primarily adversarial or strategically competitive fashion. The Australian’s conference will focus on vital economic issues such as the US-China trade war, its potential cost to Australian jobs and whether Australia should reduce economic dependence on China by shoring up other commercial relationships. Opportunities for Australian companies wanting to invest or expand into China will be canvassed, as will Chinese investment in Australia — a few days after the government approved the takeover of infant formula company Bellamy’s Australia. Australian universities’ relationships with China will be another major theme in a conference exploring the tensions and opportunities of a vital but challenging strategic and economic relationship.

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