10 August 2012

pivotal points in the Australia-China relationship, the biggest is now

This week I spent about three hours at the National Library of Australia recording an oral history interview on Australia-China relations from the perspective of my own career and views — as part of a collection being made by the National Library with the support of the Australia-China Council (their website and activity interesting) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: interviews with former Australian ambassadors to China under the title Behind the Cables. 

At the National Library web site
I have found this Australian Archives
photo taken for a passport in January 1972,
when I was China desk officer.
The ways we were....  :-) 
My government-related role in relations with China covered the period from 1970 to 1985 as desk officer, section head, branch and division head and as ambassador to China. I also had a watching brief when in the Washington embassy 1976-78, while senior advisor to the deputy opposition leader in 1978-79 and later when head of the research service in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library 1989-91.

I argued in the oral history that there have been four pivotal moments in the relationship:

  1. the shifting of recognition and diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing, from one claimant of the title of government of China to the other, in December 1972;
  2. the Fraser Cabinet decision in 1980 and ensuing action to add substance to the bilateral relationship, to shift it from an international political plaything (words I find now, not in the interview) as it had continued to be, towards a mutually beneficial substantial relationship of value to successor regimes in either country, supporting the development of a civil and productive society in the course of China's modernisation;
  3. the events in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and the fracturing of the political dimension of the Chinese reform movement;
  4. the present time, when China's emergent predominance in world affairs is the subject of wide debate and requires us to shift from a neglect of broad perspective of the relationship while we (people and government) have been focused on the money. The big new deal has snuck up and people are calamitously confused.
I have commented in this blog on the current debate (or rather, have provided links from this blog to places where I have engaged in the debate). Recently I commented on a piece by former Prime Minister Fraser at Project Syndicate and we discussed this subject further on the phone: he is very concerned that we need to shift public policy significantly to sort out both our relations with China and the United States. Malcolm Fraser's 2012 Whitlam Oration is well worth the time, a critical contribution. And this week former Prime Minister Keating has added a new substantial contribution ... though his views are well established this is the time when it is important to have them set out again. 

I recently copied to this blog some views I have on the difficulty in shifting public policy. I am not at all sure that the high minded articulations to which links above will get through and shift us from reactive muddle to sensible new strategy.

There are white papers on Asia and defence to come in the next year (see this commentary). There is also a federal election next year at latest. The capacity of major parties to adapt is poor; minor parties have difficulty adapting beyond narrow interest dogma. We are trapped in the adversarialism of Australian politics in a particularly vicious way, imposed especially by a conservative-side search for support in lowest-common-denominator fear mongering, a habit perhaps two decades old and now desperately inhibiting of creative thought, desperately damaging to public trust in government and public policy.

How does the demand for security and invulnerability among people, leaders and the media damage us? Listen to the TED presentations of Brené Brown, here and here. Yes, you need 20 minutes for each but they will be well spent.