Peter Hartcher’s essay homes in on what he sees as the “essential starting point” for Australia in its relations with China: the question “What does China want from Australia?” This is an interesting question, but not the right one. By framing it in this way, Hartcher places Australia in the passive position of waiting to see what China wants and then responding as best it can.
This critique is not just a semantic one. Hartcher argues that what China wants is “as much power and influence over Australia as it can possibly get, using fair means or foul.” But what China wants is only half the story. Influence is a two-way street, as research by my colleague Evelyn Goh at the Australian National University reminds us. China’s ability to influence other countries depends as much on the choices, decision-making processes and domestic institutions of these countries, as well as the international arrangements that they make, as it does on China’s power, pressure or skill. It is no different in Australia. What is most remarkable about Hartcher’s engaging accounts of Chinese attempts to influence Australian politicians and journalists is his demonstration that these efforts have consistently failed. Not only did Joe Hockey, Stephen Conroy, Bill Shorten, Penny Wong, Richard Marles and John Garnaut resist Chinese attempts to persuade or coerce, by Hartcher’s account they also hardened their views towards China as a result. Indeed, the only “successful” case of Chinese Communist Party influence over an Australian politician was arguably that of Sam Dastyari, whose willingness to parrot China’s position on the South China Sea brought a rapid end to his parliamentary career.
Hartcher acknowledges the consistent failure of Chinese attempts to “intrude” in Australian political and economic life. But he appears unconvinced by his own argument that there are limits to Beijing’s influence, or that Australia has the capacity to shape the nature of its relationship with China. Instead, he portrays Australia as fundamentally vulnerable to China’s overtures. He quotes at length former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis, who claims Australia faces an “existential threat” as a result of China’s “unprecedented” foreign interference activities. Having started from the passive position of asking “What does China want from Australia?” Hartcher can’t help but dismiss his own evidence and conclude that our politicians, journalists, businesses, universities and citizens are vulnerable to China and in need of protection by an increasingly powerful ASIO. By this flawed argument, he concludes, disturbingly, that we must give our intelligence agencies the right to vet those who run for parliament in this country.
Hartcher also dramatically underestimates the extent to which China’s own character and behaviour have often worked to limit its influence, both in Australia and around the world. Chinese economic statecraft in South Korea and elsewhere has undermined the country’s reputation as a reliable, market-based economic partner, while Xi Jinping’s creeping authoritarianism and human rights abuses at home have raised doubts about the desirability of a more Chinese-centred international order. Hartcher echoes perennial fears in Canberra that Asia-Pacific countries are being “bought off” by China’s lucrative foreign aid and infrastructure spending. There’s little evidence of this. A major study by AidData found that Chinese spending of US$120 billion in infrastructure and other financial diplomacy in South and Central Asia since 2000 has not translated into countries siding with China on contentious issues, or automatically winning over public support. Where China has been successful in gaining support on the world stage, it has commonly been because its policies or values align with those of other countries, particularly in the developing world: providing investment in much-needed physical infrastructure, giving them greater representation in global institutions, and preserving an international order that respects plural values and diverse systems of government.
At home in Australia, China’s so-called “influence operations” have not only failed, they’ve had precisely the opposite of their intended effect. China’s efforts to cultivate influence – through both overt and covert means – have resulted in a notable hardening of Australian attitudes in recent years. As Hartcher notes, the authoritative Lowy Institute poll of Australian attitudes about international affairs saw a 20 per cent decline in Australian levels of trust of China between 2018 and 2019. Yet again Hartcher is strangely unconvinced by his own evidence. Despite noting that Australians possess a “realistic” scepticism in their appraisals of China, his essay leans heavily on unsubstantiated assertions that Australian society is especially vulnerable to Chinese “infiltration,” or that China has already “bought control” of Australia’s economy and political system. As a result, Hartcher interprets cases like the United Front’s attempts to put on concerts in the Sydney and Melbourne town halls celebrating Mao Zedong as an example of how Australian naivety is being exploited by CCP interest groups. But an alternative reading is that these concert bookings generated vigorous debate and criticism about Mao’s leadership within the Australian Chinese community – precisely what one would hope for and expect in a healthy democratic society.
Hartcher rightly points to paralysis in Australian strategy on China. But the starting point for developing this strategy cannot be a defensive reaction to what China wants from Australia. Instead, it must be a forward-looking answer to the question “What does Australia want from China?” and, more importantly, “What can Australia achieve on the global stage?” Answering these questions will require rigorous evidence-based debate about China and the reasons why it remains so vitally important to Australia.
Rather than weakening our democratic institutions, or requiring a slavishly bipartisan line on China, as Hartcher suggests, we should remind ourselves that robust debate and critique of government policy is not a sign of disloyalty or of being pro-Beijing, but instead represents the contestability that is at the heart of an effective democratic system.
Amy King is a senior lecturer at the Australian National University, specialising in China, Japan and the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 77, Cry Me a River.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY