Australia–China relations: who’s in the dark?

| September 13, 2018

Not for the first time, Australia is wrestling with the stance it wants to (or needs to) adopt towards the People’s Republic of China. Our economic wellbeing is more strongly linked to China than are most other economies in the world, and that link is stronger than it has been with our primary economic partners in the past—the UK and Japan.

Moreover, this correlation isn’t going to weaken over the foreseeable future and, if it weakens too abruptly, the pain will be intense. For some time now, China has pressed us to translate this compelling economic association into something deeper at the political and societal level.

Australia’s national interests point quite unambiguously to being proactive in seeking the closest and most constructive relationship with China that we can get.

Relationships of trust and confidence between states develop from openness and transparency (about feelings and interests, about assessments and evaluations of third parties and international events and developments, about decision-making processes and so on) and from both sides finding that reciprocity to be rewarding and reassuring.

More often than not, the development of an international relationship will involve agreement to collaborate in the pursuit of a shared interest—whether bilaterally or in some multilateral context like the UN—and these experiences feed into the confidence that each side has about the other’s compatibility and dependability.

In short, the character of an international relationship depends on how strongly the parties share values and interests, on how determined each side is to build and sustain a close relationship, and on how prepared each side is to expose itself to the other.

At the heart of our problem with China—a problem shared by many states—is that China craves close relationships but on the condition that partners accept that its governance procedures are off limits.

It is access to and insights on precisely these procedures that constitute the essence of diplomacy and provide the foundation for other states to make confident judgements about the merits of a deeper relationship. And only when such access and insights build strong confidence will states judge that an especially close relationship is worthwhile.

China’s current communist government came to power in 1949 after two decades of civil war, that is, by force of arms. It promulgated a new constitution that made the CCP the government of China in perpetuity, emphatically resuming a tradition of authoritarian governance (headed by an emperor) that stretched back at least 2,500 years, but without the legitimacy that in the past flowed from the institution of the emperor.

The CCP is a historically new blend of China’s imperial tradition, Confucianism and socialism. Perhaps the single most conspicuous feature of the Chinese system of governance is the absolute priority attached to the state’s monopoly control over access to knowledge about what the state has done, is doing and plans to do.

That imperative applies just as forcefully to Chinese citizens as it does to foreigners. This posture, which now extends to the internet and social media, is intended to ensure that the CCP is the sole voice speaking for China.

To the CCP, the notion of checks and balances on the power of the state—whether done through a parliament, a free press, an independent judiciary or an informed public—is anathema. It contradicts the very essence of the party’s philosophy of governance.

As it lacks the legitimacy provided by elections or the mythology that attended the imperial system, and since aspiring to the goals of socialism lost its cache, the CCP has been left to justify its perpetuity by claiming to provide something approaching perfection—the best imaginable governance. And the CCP strives to have in place the controls needed to ensure that no evidence or opinions to the contrary can be found.

The closed and closely guarded nature of China’s internal affairs is a deep-seated characteristic, a contemporary compulsion reinforced by cultural traits rather than a posture that China adopts for tactical reasons. Now that the country is strong once again, the CCP seeks to leverage China’s weight to require other governments to not directly or indirectly undercut its claim to governance at its best.

In a manner of speaking, China seeks to ensure that the what, when, how and why of the state’s activities are not independently verifiable, requiring interested parties—Chinese citizens as much as foreigners—to rely exclusively on the narrative provide by the state.

The Chinese government may be unaware that its domestic circumstances drive it towards a style of engagement that other states find overbearing and that makes maintaining stable relationships that much harder. That seems unlikely, however. It’s more likely that it is seen as inescapable and the only way to get away with it is to present it as a normal and necessary part of reaping the benefits of a ‘good relationship’ with China.

That’s a tough ask, especially, perhaps, for democracies. Even if another state is disposed to skate over the more troubling aspects of Chinese internal practices, the asymmetry in transparency makes it doubly hard.

China’s insistence that other states be content with whatever information the CCP chooses to divulge is tantamount to handicapping—inviting them to cope with a damaging imbalance in the capacity to make informed judgements about intentions and goals, about what is driving positions on particular issues, and about the scope to shift those positions.

This may, in fact, be the true source of the profound difficulties with the international order that are now being exposed. The so-called rules-based order may or may not be biased towards Western values, but it does presume the prevalence of states that view government and governance as both indispensable and dangerous, with the latter characteristic managed by checks and balances on the power of the state.

Now that an actor has emerged that is both an economic powerhouse and doesn’t accept that the state can be too powerful—holding instead that the state must be all powerful—we may have an actor with a decisive competitive edge over its democratic rivals. One way or another, a lot of the future is going to be driven by attempts to restore a level playing field.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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Ron Huisken

Ron Huisken is an adjunct associate professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. His areas of expertise include the government and politics of Asia and the Pacific and Defence Studies.