As the two countries have a strong economic relationship, Australia should be China’s best friend in the West, Steve Howard (Howard), secretary general of the Australia-based Global Foundation, said at the Eighth World Peace Forum Tuesday in Beijing. By saying, “If China catches a cold, the world gets influenza and Australia gets pneumonia,” he underlined the importance of China-Australia relations with an aphorism. Why have bilateral relations become strained in the past two years? How can Australia and China overcome challenges to reset ties? Howard shared his opinions with Global Times (GT) reporters Yu Jincui and Bai Yunyi.
GT: There has been much criticism of the so-called China threat and China influence in Australia in the past two years. Could you explain what happened in Australian politics and society in the last two years?
Howard: It was a complicated time until about one year ago. I think we did have a number of problems and a number of reasons for the problems. Some of it is genuine misunderstanding. Some are caused by what I call mischievous actors in Australia.
Australia is a very big, noisy democracy. And there are many voices, and sometimes people have negative things to say to get more attention than they should. We were getting a lot of negativity in the 12 months and even 18 months before. And some of that was coming from very senior levels. And it was very unfortunate. I was upset that there were some statements made about China and China-Australia relations that were not true. This mistrust in the relationship should not have been there.
GT: Some observes hold that the China-Australia relationship remains frosty despite a perceived reset underway since Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister in 2018. Is the current government keen on reshaping ties with China?
Howard: I think the Morrison government has taken some very positive and important steps since Morrison took office. These have stabilized our relations and stopped a lot of the negativity. It’s less frosty than it was a year ago. But it also needs what I call signals or headlines, such as high-level visits from leaders with the right messages about the long-term relationship, not just short-term. I think what China values is stability and predictability. So, China would like to know that looking 10 and 20 years ahead and even further, it can count on Australia to be a partner in a number of ways.
GT: What are the biggest challenges for Australia in improving ties with China?
Howard: Although the trade or economic relationship between the two countries is really huge and really vital and very complementary, there’s not enough of what I call institutional frameworks to build the underlying bedrock or ballast people-to-people links. I think we’ve had a wake-up call in Australia and in China that we need to deepen the way in which we engage together.
You know China has taken off globally. But I don’t think there’s been enough attention in Australia to underlying trust building and what I call strategic relations rather than just day-to-day management. So, for example, I admire the fact that the US, maybe it’s different under the current administration, but the US with different administrations, has had, I think, quite a number of official forms of dialogue with China, and vice versa. In other words, it is a very sophisticated way of managing relationships. Australia hasn’t had this. When issues have arisen, we haven’t had the means by which we can have the conversations we should have before these issues become too hot.
GT: Australian columnist Tony Walker recently cited several senior public servants saying that security issues have too big a hold on Australia’s China policy, and this is one of the reasons why the China-Australia relationship is being mishandled. What’s your take on this?
Howard: I am confident that the Australian government, which won the recent election, is in control of the nation and in control of the security establishment of all the arms of government. The Australian government, whoever is in power, will take advice from security agencies. And that advice can be positive or negative, and the government needs to make national decisions.
Maybe the government can send some stronger messages to the Australian community, as well as to China, because I think the Australian people also want to be sure that the government is controlling all the arms of government and not the other way around. Australian people are not fools. They know that their prosperity is heavily linked to China. They want the government they elected to be sensible and responsible to protect their interests.
GT: Australia has banned 5G infrastructure coming from China. But in this highly globalized world, the US probably will not be the only economic center in the coming years. Do you believe Australia is prepared for this scenario?
Howard: If we believe in open globalization, if we’re serious about economic globalization, all countries should adopt the best technology, wherever it comes from. Of course, countries have legitimate security concerns. I think that the government is entitled to make decisions based on the best advice. I was disappointed that it made the decision, but I respect the decision.
The best global companies now realize that to succeed wherever they operate, be it Africa or Australia, they have to be good not only at business, they have to be good at winning support in many ways. Huawei has brilliant technology. But maybe there’s a story about how to improve community acceptance and understanding of what Chinese companies are wishing to do globally.
What I don’t want is a situation where the world is divided between choices of Chinese or American technology. I think we have to think about these decisions quite differently in the future. And it’s hard for those of us who are not involved in security advice to know exactly upon what basis these things can be done. But I think we need a different method going forward, avoiding the problem before it becomes a big headache.
GT: Prime Minister Morrison recently warned of “collateral damage” in the trade dispute between the US and China. As Australia is a US ally while a close economic partner of China, what impact will intensifying China-US competition have on Australia and the country’s China policy?
Howard: To me, what Prime Minister Morrison was saying, I believe, is that economic globalization and openness is the most vital thing for Australia in the world system. China is now a champion of economic globalization, so is Australia. We now have China and Australia in exactly the same position where they want an open, engaged world trading system. Some countries are going in the other direction, which causes worries.
So, China and Australia could form what I call a coalition of the willing on this issue. They could be partners not just together, but to work with other like-minded countries at a global level to have an impact, for example, on strengthening the World Trade Organization, reforming the rules and other institutions that actually help to encourage trade and multilateralism engagement.
In terms of the US, I think Australia makes up its own mind about its foreign policy, and it needs to, and this is not an easy path for Australia, because Australia in the past in many ways always had a big protector. Now we face a world in which China has become a great power. It is a major economic partner, which means it has to be given due political importance.
I think Australia needs to be very careful not to take sides. Australia needs to offer to be helpful, often quietly, rather than making a lot of noise. China is the largest economic trading partner. America has been our most important ally. The relative power between the two is shifting. Australia needs to adjust its long-term game to take account of this.
GT: You support Australia formally joining the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Why?
Howard: The vision is a really good one, a really strong one. When President Xi Jinping delivered a speech on it at the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017, he talked about the need to find common rules, the need for an even higher level of conversation, a dialogue between civilizations, which is respecting cultures and long-term history. So, the BRI is actually a very high-level concept as well as a concept of projects. And I think it’s taken a while for many countries, particularly in the West, including Australia, to understand that this is China’s intention.
I certainly hope that the Australian government would be a supporter of the BRI. I think Australia has a lot of expertise to offer China, a lot of experience in working with infrastructure. We have a lot of capital with the third-biggest pension funds in the world. And they like to invest in infrastructure. And at the moment they don’t invest much in infrastructure in Asia because it’s too risky. So why wouldn’t it be another area of cooperation?
GT: In your opinion, is there anything the current Australian government can learn from former prime minister John Howard’s China policy?
Howard: Prime minister Howard was elected in 1996. When he took office, relations between Australia and China were a bit rocky. But he worked with his Chinese counterparts on being predictable, stable, and trustworthy. And they actually built a very effective relationship between Australia and China.
He said he would be reliable, stable, and predictable. He also said to China that Australia would not use a megaphone. In other words, if we have issues, we’ll talk about them, but we’ll talk about them quietly. So, let’s identify the things we have in common and cooperate. And let’s put the difficult things over here and agree to work on them quietly. This is a very good model of prime minister Howard.