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We still don't know how to talk about China



11 April 2014

Australia cannot be bereft of a coherent national narrative for its relations with China any longer. It falls to Tony Abbott to do something about this on his current visit, writes Kerry Brown.

Anyone looking at the Australia-China relationship would be forgiven for dubbing it a play in search of a storyline.

It has all the characters, from Gough Whitlam who brought the modern relationship into being, to politicians like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who spent much of their careers stressing that Asia in general and China in particular were crucially important partners for Australia.

With Kevin Rudd, we reached what should have been the climax. A mandarin-speaking, China literate national leader who was more knowledgeable than any other leader of a developed country about the inner workings of Beijing. What could possible go wrong with that?

And yet, if there is one message that must weigh on incumbent Tony Abbott's mind as he undertakes his first visit to China since being elected last year, it is that avoiding doing most of the things that Rudd did would be about the best place to start.

Maybe it was Rudd's preachy, imperious style, or issues over his sincerity, but his brief period in leadership has set a benchmark on how to get the details mostly right, and totally mess up on the bigger picture. It is this big picture that Abbott must now pay attention to.

Australia searches for a narrative in its relations with China that differentiate without alienating from its major ally the USA, appeals domestically in Australia, and helps in conversations in China. No one would say this was an easy ask. The standard holding tactic in recent years as China has grown more important as a trade partner is to focus on the transactional stuff - the inward and outward investment, the selling of natural resources into the Chinese market, the aspiration to crown all this with a free trade agreement. But when Australia tries to ask deeper questions about what its vision of an Asian century - which will almost certainly be increasingly dominated by China - is, then invariably politicians either collapse into platitudes or sound tongue-tied.

When Abbottspoke at the Asia Societyjust before his China visit in late March, and then in hiskeynote at the Boao Forumon April 10, the platitudes sounded good. China and Australia are friends, they have much to agree on and they want a peaceful, harmonious global order. No one with any sense would dispute these points. But instead of then reaching out after these for something that captured Australia's aspirations and expectations towards China, the airwaves went silent.

Abbott must be very heedful of the irritations that his predecessor Rudd caused. But Rudd's quality to irritate transcended culture and language. Excessive narcissism is hard to stomach anywhere. There was nothing generically bad about the things that Rudd said to Chinese leaders, and in China. It was just his inability to spell out a broader and more compelling vision.

Abbott's immediate predecessors did him a poor service. All of themlacked the imagination to stray much beyond deploying conflicting language that painted China as both an economic ally and a geopolitical threat all at the same time.

Embracing a much richer, more complex and more varied dialogue with China on rule of law, on sustainability, on the creation of global citizens and on the importance of civic values are all things a society with stellar legal and welfare credentials, like Australia, is well placed to do. After all, now it has such a major trade dependency with China, Australia more than any other developed economy has a vested interest in ensuring that its key economic partner is stable, prosperous and interlinked into the global political and economic order. And unlike the US, Australia is not tainted in China by its almost evangelical desire for the rest of the world to become just like it.

Australia has a much more straightforward and amiable image. It is probably one of the few democracies that Chinese leaders might actually like.

Abbott's immediate predecessors did him a poor service. All of themlacked the imagination to stray much beyond deploying conflicting language that painted China as both an economic ally and a geopolitical threat all at the same time.

The ambiguity is now profoundly embedded in public opinion so that in many ways people are almost wilfully ignorant of China despite the manifold ways in which the country now reaches deep into not just the economic life of Australia, but its political, social and cultural identity (as a telling example, the largest Chinese new year celebrations outside of Asia are held in Sydney).

Australia cannot be bereft of a coherent national narrative for the key drivers of its relations with China any longer. It falls to Abbott to do something about this. It might well be his biggest foreign policy achievement if he can crack it.

The augers so far are not good. But an observer has to look at the groaning inconsistencies over the last few months, from Abbott's foray into theSouth China Sea disputeand Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's needlessly sycophantic language in Washington earlier this year and wonder whether everything couldn't be done just a little bit better.

And a realisation of that during the Abbott China visit might be the best outcome of all, no matter what trade deals are promised or signed.

If we don't have the story of our engagement and its drivers and aspirations, then how can we truly understand what is going on and have a greater way of shaping and controlling it? That is the key mission for Chinese-Australian relations at the moment.

Professor Kerry Brown is executive director of the China Studies Centre and Professor of Chinese Politics at the University of Sydney. View his full profilehere.