Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has inherited his predecessor's tough stance on China. Photo: Screengrab / BBC / Getty

Australia’s new Labor government would do well to emulate neighboring New Zealand and reap the benefits of a balanced relationship with China.

A good start for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would be to abandon the US-inspired anti-China policies of the previous Liberal government.

Making China a “strategic competitor” will not serve Australia’s national interests. For example, the Australian government followed former US president Donald Trump’s policy of barring Chinese telecom companies from participating in its rollout of fifth-generation technology, which culminated in higher costs and held back its 5G rollout.

Moreover, dismantling Chinese-made equipment might not necessarily address the country’s “national security” concerns because some of the alternative sources of telecom technology – Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung products – are made in China.

Furthermore, Huawei held a number of 5G patents, meaning that Australian telecom providers must pay loyalties to the Chinese company in any case. Besides, Australian intelligence agencies, like those in the US and UK, failed to produce any conclusive evidence that Huawei products posed a national-security threat.

Costs of making China an enemy

During the past period of more friendly relations with China, Australia enjoyed almost three decades of uninterrupted economic growth.

It was China’s large purchases of Australian commodities in 2008 that prevented its economy from falling into the Deep Recession. Since then, China has bought large quantities of Australian resources, sent hundreds of thousands of its young people to study in its universities, as well as tourists.

But the golden age of the China-Australia relationship came to an abrupt end when the Australian government decided to follow the US narrative against the Communist Party of China: insinuating that the CPC leaked the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the world, barring Chinese telecom equipment, accusing the CPC of abusing human rights, bullying small nations, spying on or interfering in Australia’s affairs and coercive economic behavior, among other allegations.

In retaliation, China stopped buying or imposed heavy duties on some Australian goods such as coal, wine and lobsters. Many Chinese students and tourists stopped traveling to Australia because of visa issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

While not sinking the Australian economy, the Chinese boycotts worsened Australia’s Covid-induced economic woes.

In addition to the economic losses, Australia risked its national security by being China’s enemy and a close ally of the US. In the event of a US-China war, Australia will be a target for Chinese conventional and nuclear missiles.

Australia is home to US military bases and is a member of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) alliance and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the US, Australia, the UK and India. Should war break out, Australia will not just be losing its soldiers as it has in past conflicts, but it will be losing large numbers of its civilian population and property.

So all this raises the question: Why did the Australian government choose to go down this path?

Well, Australia lamented that China was out to destroy its values or way of life, posing a long-term threat. China was building increasingly lethal weapons, and signing economic and security agreements with Australia’s neighbors such as Solomon Islands.

But China could accuse Australia of doing the same thing by siding with the US. For example, getting eight nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK under the AUKUS agreement was meant to contain if not destroy China. It was for the same reasons that Australia become a part of the Quad.

The problem with accusing China of trying to destroy Australia’s “way of life,” however, is that this is just fear-mongering. China has never shown any indication that it would do so. Indeed, it neither cared nor wanted Australia’s or anyone else’s values or way of life. In its perception, Western-style liberal democracy would be a “dead end” for China, to borrow the words of former president Hu Jintao.

Why a dead end?

China viewing Western-style democracy as a “dead end” did not imply that it will destroy those who embraced it. Indeed, China has always said that every country should adopt an ideology that reflects its history and way of life. The implication was that liberal democracy was not suitable for China itself.

For much of its past, China tried to follow the ideologies of various “civilized states,” but it turned out that getting a consensus on turning a proposal into policy proved difficult. And not getting a consensus often leads to policy gridlocks – just ask the US and India.

Historically, moreover, the central government had little control over local governments far from the capital. Mao Zedong himself admitted as much to then-US national security adviser Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s.

This was because local interests differed from those of the nation, because local officials did not agree with the central government’s policies.

Furthermore, Chinese leaders were well aware of the effects of democracy on the former Soviet Union and developing countries. From 1927 to the years nearing the implosion of the USSR, it enjoyed rapid economic growth under the central government’s Five-Year Plan model.

But that ended, and the Soviet Union became an economic basket case because local officials were given the power to prioritize local interests over those of the central government.

And the fact is that some developing economies that have touted democracy have remained less than developed. India was cheered by the West as an up-and-coming economic colossus that would outdo China because it was a “democracy.”

But it did not turn out that way; its share of the world economic pie has remained basically unchanged since independence, and the country is still home to one of the world’s largets impoverished populations.

Development under ‘illiberal’ policies

In most Western and other rich economies, their rapid development was made, in part, through “illiberal” means. The US, for example, became rich and powerful largely because it had free labor in the form of slavery, committed genocide against the indigenous populations and stole their land and resources.

Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore built their economic foundations during their “undemocratic” pasts. For example, Japanese industries were highly protected and subsidized, allowing them to grow and prosper.

The same was true in the other “Asian Tigers” – South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. They became “developed” during periods of authoritarian rule in the 1980s. South Korea was ruled by a dictatorship, as was Taiwan.

Or simply put, there was little real distinction between China’s economic model and that of the “free world,” the government giving the economy a “helping hand” at the early stages of development.

The case for China-Australia rapprochement

Picking a fight with its largest trade partner and a nuclear-armed superpower to boot will not serve Australia’s national interests. Yes, Australia can find alternative customers, but few if any could buy the quantities of goods that China can.

From this perspective, the new Albanese government should consider China’s gestures toward rapprochement. Other than irking the anti-China crowd, Australia will have much to gain.

China will not change its development and governance platforms, but it is not demanding that other countries adopt its models. Rather, China is reaching out to the West, including Australia, to work together to make the world more peaceful and prosperous.

The Chinese leadership has urged the newly elected Labor government in Canberra to reset the China-Australia relationship. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made a number of proposals along these lines.

By making these reasonable proposals, China is in essence asking Australia to be like New Zealand, criticizing Beijing as it deems appropriate but doing so without being provocative. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she would like China to respect human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and urged the Asian powerhouse to speak out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

China has not objected strongly to Ardern’s policies because they have not been provocative, unlike those espoused by Australia’s former Liberal government.

The previous Scott Morrison government explicitly and loudly denounced China as committing genocide in Xinjiang, disrespected the “one country, two systems” architecture governing Hong Kong and insinuated that a laboratory leak in China caused the Covid-19 pandemic. None of the allegations were had any credible evidence.

The result of New Zealand’s policies is that it and China are sustaining an even-keeled relationship. Trade with China is flourishing and will continue to do so, and New Zealand will likely see large numbers of Chinese students and tourists landing on its shores.

Pragmatic diplomacy and dialogue go a long way; Prime Minister Albanese should give it a try.

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.