Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Australia-China Relations post 1949

Australia-China Relations post 1949: Sixty Years of Trade and Politics.
By Yi WangWang - Aus-China

(Review first published by Pacific Affairs: Volume 87, No. 3 – September 2014)

Middle age is often seen as a time for reflection on our lives, and the 40-year mark of the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Australia is an apt time for reflection. Yi Wang has written a timely study that joins a number of recent publications on the fascinating relationship between the newest great power of Asia, and an aging middle power. This book examines the relationship from the Australian perspective, divided into discrete historical chapters roughly linked with Australian prime ministers. Chapters include the 1949–1972 period, the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser years (1972–1983), the Bob Hawke government up until the “June 4” incident in 1989, 1989–1996 under Hawke and Paul Keating, John Howard’s long reign from 1996–2007 and finally Kevin Rudd’s aborted 2007–2010 term.

As the subtitle indicates, the author weaves a careful study of both the political and trade aspects of the relationship, and works hard to bring both parts to light and show the links between the two. Wang demonstrates that while there have been regular diplomatic disputes and political challenges, the overall relationship has significantly strengthened and matured. As Wang notes, this is in large part because Australian leaders and their Chinese counterparts have placed the maintenance of good trade relationships ahead of political considerations. This has not only served the economies of both countries well, it has enabled a deepening relationship where issues such as human rights and regional security politics now have the opportunity to be openly discussed.

Reading through the years, it’s encouraging to see how similar many of the debates and worries about China have been for Australian audiences. Wang’s historical survey shows that contemporary fears about how close Australia should get to China and the relative balance between the security and economic aspects of the relationship are neither new nor particularly fraught today. The book also shines in periods where the author, a former Chinese official now working in Australia, was either involved or at least present for key moments in the relationship. The section on Australia’s
human rights delegation visits to China after Tiananmen, and the analysis of Kevin Rudd’s now infamous “zhengyou” or “true friend” speech shine with personal detail and sharp analysis. Indeed, the analysis of the “Rudd paradox,” where a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat oversaw growing mistrust and suspicion between China and Australia, is excellent.

Unfortunately, the wide scope and different levels of access means a varying quality and quantity of analysis. The author has managed to talk to many senior policy makers on the Australian side, but aside from an interview with John Howard in 2011, the bulk of the interviews were conducted back in 1991–1994. This is a shame, as it would have been great to see the author revisit those involved during this crucial period and see how their views have changed or evolved over time. The interviews and the author’s engagement with the early 1990s period also lead to an overly heavy focus on this era. Most chapters, such as the one on the 23 years between 1949–1972 or on  the 11 years between 1996–2007 run to about 30 pages in length. The 16 years of the Hawke-Keating government, however, is given 88 pages. In turn, the impact of Whitlam, Fraser and Howard in particular feels under-done. The “findings and conclusion” chapter is also too brief, while raising many tantalizing but unaddressed questions. It’s also clear that the author’s interest lies more towards the trade side of the relationship, and so several of the political questions which are raised
in the introduction are largely sidelined during the book. Most notably, the author sets out to “answer the question of whether Australia has been pursuing its relations with China independently or otherwise” (ix) given its alliance with the US, yet aside from a few half-hearted references the issue is largely ignored. The author doesn’t even really address the topic in the findings chapter, aside from dismissing similarities between Canberra and Washington’s approach to Beijing as a “coincidence of interests [rather] than from blind subservience to great power policy” (211).

This is a shame, as the impact of the great powers on Australian foreign policy is one of the key questions in the field, and Wang’s focus on a nonallied power such as China could have proven an excellent addition to the literature. Certainly careful readers can see a justification for the author’s assessment in the historical chapters and draw their own conclusions, but it would have been useful to see a more explicit engagement throughout. Indeed, while the author sets out to present the book as a work of political science and international relations, this feels at times like a coat pulled over the top of a more traditional piece of diplomatic history—one put on in order to attract a wider readership without necessarily deepening the analysis. Big questions such as whether Australia now faces a “China choice,” for instance, are hinted at by the author, yet left untouched. Ultimately, this book represents a very useful reference work that will inform and guide any student or scholar of Australian foreign policy. But it also feels like something of a missed opportunity. Given the author’s background, it would have been great to learn more about what the Chinese think of this middle-sized Western outpost with its great mineral wealth and a healthy self-regard on the international stage. Maybe that’s for the next book. Until then Yi Wang is to be congratulated for holding up a mirror to Australia’s approach to China, showing both the growing strength, as well as patches of flab that need further work.

« Previous post
Next post »