Chasing the Norm

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

China Matters

China Matters: Getting it Right for Australia by Bates Gill, Linda Jakobson

“Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder” – George Washington in ‘Hamilton’, by Lin-Manuel Miranda.Gill-China Matters

Australia’s debate about China has in some ways, been about the easy stuff: War, death and destruction. Notions of being trapped in conflict and nuclear war have quickly risen to the foreground of our public debates. If there was a conflict, Australia’s choices would be straight forward. Outside exceptional circumstances —such as an unprovoked US strike on Beijing— Australia would be involved and support its treaty ally and fellow democracies.

But if those issues are relatively simple, managing the peace, keeping it, and living comfortably within it, will be much more difficult. China will matter each and every single day from now until either they collapse or we do. In their timely new book, China Matters: Getting it right for Australia, Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson spell out the many difficulties this peacetime relationship poses, from China’s growing economic significance and military power to its soft power interference inside Australia.

It’s notable that neither Gill or Jacobson are Australians by birth. Both were brought to Australia as senior China analysts. Both found themselves concerned at the poor state of public knowledge and political debate about China in this country. As such, Jakobson helped found China Matters a public policy initiative and with Gill wrote a book of the same name.

This short and engaging book is partly an attempt to explain China to Australians and partly a warning of the issues Australians need to think about on China. Along the way it covers a lot of ground, but without overloading the reader or falling into academic jargon or laboured prose.
In the first half of the book, we have easy to follow summaries of China’s astonishing development, analysis of the prospects for social and political stability. The chapter on the economic challenges Beijing is confronting by Arthur R. Kroeber is excellent and highly recommended.

In the second half of the book, the focus turns to how China’s international presence is changing. Its hard and soft power and implications for Australia. While I’m perhaps more comfortable speaking about hard power issues, I found this chapter actually less concerning than its soft equivalent. The risks of military conflict remain remote — especially anything that would reach the Australian continent. Instead, there is an urgent need to think through the ‘war by other means’ of political interference.

Not just in the headline efforts at corruption or intimidation, but the pressure placed on Australian citizens, or Chinese citizens in Australia by Beijing. Or the pressure Australians wanting access to Chinese markets have placed on themselves. Gill and Jakobson confirm a story I had only heard in rumor around Canberra, that the ABC and SBS have on occasion self-censored stories to gain access to the massive social media networks of China.

They reveal that there are dozens of Chinese language media sources in Australia, with most in some way controlled or influenced by the Chinese government. When combined with the revelations of ABC’s Four Corners program on CCP influence in Australia, it presents a worrying picture that requires immediate attention.

This leads to the all important last chapter, what this all means for Australia. The authors try hard to be optimistic, but Australia seems to remain ill equipped. The recent studies for government by the Australian Intelligence Community and the National Security Committee’s meeting solely on China’s role are encouraging signs of elite attention. But these are just the beginning.

Nothing about this coming struggle will be simple. China is not ‘the enemy’ or our opponent. Preventing war requires as much engagement and negotiation as it does principled opposition and protest. Chinese investment is both critically necessary for the good of the country, and a source of some public and security concern.

Managing this, without falling into self-defeating beliefs that all foreign investment is a security threat —see the misguided debate over the sale of Darwin’s port or iconic agricultural land— or simply accepting involvement without care will take far greater skill and care than we’ve had to demonstrate in the past.

A path to conflict is easy, a path away from conflict will be immensely difficult. And a path that enables us to move away from conflict and manage the inevitable tensions of a very divergent great power close to our north, will be the most difficult of all. We’re hardly ready for it, but thankfully we have some of the world-best guides in Linda Jakobson and Bates Gill to help guide our way.

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