The Voices of War

35. John Blaxland And Qinduo Xu - On AUKUS, US/China Relations And Growing Tensions

VOW 35 | AUKUS

 

Today I spoke with John Blaxland and Qinduo Xu. John is an outspoken commentator and researcher on topics such as Australian military history and strategy, public policy, security, defense, and international relations. Qinduo Xu is a political analyst who frequently contributes to international media outlets on China’s rise and its interactions with the rest of the world. We discussed the roots of the AUKUS partnership, differences in Australian and Chinese perspectives, China’s economic and military growth, COVID-19, Double standards, lack of transparency, projection of strength, culture, and many other topics.

You can follow John and Qinduo on their respective Twitter accounts @JohnBlaxland1 and @xuqinduo.

I briefly mentioned an article I recently published on the state of Western democracy, grey zone warfare by authoritarian states and the dangers of social media. You can view the article here.

My guests today are John Blaxland and Qinduo Xu. My audience might already be familiar with John Blaxland, who’s previously been on the show. He is a Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and the former Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Prior to his academic pursuits, John enjoyed an extensive career as an Intelligence Officer in the Australian Army including as the principal intelligence staff officer for the Australian contingent deployed to East Timor in 1999, as the Director Joint Intelligence Operations at Headquarters Joint Operations Command and as Australia’s Defence Attaché to Thailand and Myanmar. John is an outspoken commentator and researcher on topics such as Australian military history and strategy, public policy, security, defence, and international relations.

Qinduo Xu hosts Dialogue Weekend at China Global Television Network (CGTN), a talk show that offers in-depth analyses of current affairs. He also works as a producer of the TODAY show at China Radio International. As a political analyst who follows Chinese foreign policy closely, Qinduo frequently contributes to international media outlets such as The New York Times, Press TV, NPR, Turkey’s TRT, ABC, RT, and others.

Qinduo majored in both English and international studies. His focus of research has been on China’s rise and its interactions with the rest of the world. Qinduo has spent years in the US as the chief correspondent for China Radio International and one year in Australia as a visiting scholar at the University of Melbourne. He is a Senior Fellow at the Pangoal Institution and an Adjunct Professor at Renmin University of China.

 

Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Origins and impact of AUKUS from the Australian and Chinese perspective
  • China’s economic and military growth
  • The primacy of China and US relationship
  • China’s overseas influence operations
  • Why China did not accept responsibility for COVID-19
  • Double standards, lack of transparency, and projection of strength
  • Importance of perception, history, and culture
  • Role of globalisation in deteriorating relationships
  • Defusing tensions
  • Chinese perspective of its role and contribution to the world
  • Climate change and global challenges
  • Need for increased dialogue between US, China, and other nations

Listen to the podcast here

 

John Blaxland And Qinduo Xu – On AUKUS, US/China Relations And Growing Tensions

My guests are John Blaxland and Qinduo Xu. My audience might already be familiar with John Blaxland, who has previously been on the show. He is a professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and the former Head of the Strategic and Defence Study Center at the Australian National University.

Prior to academic pursuits, John enjoyed an extensive career as an intelligence officer in the Australian Army, including as the Principal Intelligence Staff officer for the Australian contingent deployed to East Timor in 1999 as the Director of Joint Intelligence Operations at Headquarters Joint Operations Command and as Australia’s Defence Attaché to Thailand and Myanmar. John is an outspoken commentator and researcher on topics such as Australian military history and strategy, public policy, security, defence, and international relations.

Qinduo Xu hosts Dialogue Weekend at China Global Television Network, a talk show that offers an in-depth analysis of current affairs. He also works as a producer of The Today Show at China Radio International. As a political analyst who follows Chinese foreign policy closely, he frequently contributes to international media outlets such as The New York Times, Press TV, NPR, Turkey’s TRT, ABC, RT, and others.

He majored in both English and International Studies. His focus of research has been on China’s rise and its interaction with the rest of the world. He has spent years in the US as the Chief Correspondent for China Radio International and one year in Australia as a visiting scholar at the University of Melbourne. He is a Senior Fellow at the Pangoal Institution and an Adjunct Professor at Renmin University of China. Qinduo and John joined me to discuss the impact of the announced AUKUS security partnership, as well as broader issues to do with the ongoing rise of China. Gentlemen, thank you both for joining me on the show.

Thank you.

It is good to be with you, Maz.

John, maybe I can start with you. What is AUKUS? What motivated its creation and the storm that ensued?

It is not a pact. It is a technical agreement about the sharing of technology, including nuclear propulsion for submarines. I was in a chat, and people were talking about the AUKUS pact. There is no security guarantee and reciprocal mutual agreement to protect each other from extremists. What it does is imply that there is more to it, but in the black-and-white words used, it is a technical agreement.

Why has it come about? There’s a variety of factors there. One is technology has shifted. There was a decision several years ago to get conventional propulsion submarines with diesel-electric submarine propulsion, but it has been overtaken by events. What has become patently clear is that Australian submarines operate at long distances, which is what you need to even get around Australia’s shoreline, let alone go anywhere else. It requires the ability to sustain reasonably rapid movement with stealth.

The key thing about submarines is they offer stealth. Stealth has become compromised. With computers, AI, drones, and satellites, it is a lot easier to detect a submarine now than it ever was, particularly a conventionally powered one like the ones we were talking about getting from France. The whole point of spending 90 billion AUD on submarines was to get something that had reached deterrents and stealth. If you don’t have the stealth anymore, you don’t have the deterrents.

VOW 35 | AUKUS
AUKUS: The key thing about submarines is they offer stealth, but stealth has become compromised by the fact that computers, AI drones and satellites mean it’s a lot easier to detect a submarine now than it ever was.

 

It became an issue of, “What do we do?” We are in a bit of a conundrum. The decision was made to approach the Brits and the Americans about sharing nuclear propulsion technology. With that, a range of technologies that would enable Australia to have a greater range with its weapon systems to add a degree of confidence to its ability to deter mindful, in particular, of the fact that China has exponentially grown its military capabilities and developed long-range precision strike capabilities to which Australia could offer nothing in to deter in response. There is a combination of factors there.

Along the way, we managed to insult the French by walking away from the French submarine deal, even though they made nuclear propulsion submarines. Their version was a low-enriched uranium version. The American British one is a highly enriched uranium version, which ostensibly is a version that doesn’t require massive Australian technological input. It is a bit like a black box. You can plug it in and run it for 30 to 35 years, apart from exterior maintenance and not touching the insides. That is all well and good in theory. The practice is that we now have cancelled a submarine program. We don’t have another one. Technologically, there is little to show for it now in the near term.

I like the fact that you used the word deterrent because, for the uninformed, it is clear what this deterrence is for and the rise of China. Qinduo, what are your thoughts on AUKUS, its origins, and why it’s been brought into existence?

China is not happy with the new development. It is like a new military building block in this region. I want to point out that China’s happiness is mostly targeted at Washington, not at Australia because if you look at the spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, they are talking about the irresponsible behaviour of Washington.

The speaker for being irresponsible means there is a potential problem with the non-proliferation treaty because Australia is a member of the NPT, but Washington, by exploring loopholes in that NPT by sharing technology with nuclear technology with Australia. That could set a bad example for other countries. For example, South Korea, Iran, Israel, and Japan. How do you have enough reason, ratification, or justification to prevent them from acquiring nuclear power and submarines? They would say, “Australia has that. Why can’t I have that?”

That is a concern. Building such a new military alliance is breaking the security framework in this region. In this region, we have ICM at the centrepiece. We have all kinds of conferences like ICM+1 and ICM+3. For a ministry meeting, we focus on ICM or led by ICM countries. Australia, China, Europe, and the United States are all part of this larger group.

Some of the mediums of President Biden is to have a video conference with leaders from other Quad countries, including Australia, India, and Japan. On my hand, you enhance the mechanism of the Quad. We know that it is targeting China. You have AUKUS targeting China. Biden said at the UN General Assembly, “The US is not seeking a Cold War or somehow breaking the world into different blocks.” Washington is exactly doing that. People wonder, “Is Washington seeking a new Cold War?” That is a concern.

China does not want to have a Cold War with the US or any other country because China is still in the mind of pushing forward for this free trade agreement. That is why China applied to join CPTPP, the Comprehensive and Progressive TPP, and RCEP is to start hopefully in early 2022 to become effective. China thinks globalisation, freight trade, and investment should still be the major theme of global development because that will benefit China and the entire region. That is about the people’s standard of living and economic issues. We know that for every country, that matters the most. The difference is sitting in Beijing. People see it differently from people in Canberra or Washington.

It is great to hear Qinduo’s points of view on this, but there are many points to which I have to respond. Rhetorically, all of the things Qinduo said are understandable and reasonably valid. The reality doesn’t quite match the rhetoric. We talk about a Cold War and an arms race. No other country in Asia has seen exponential growth in its military capabilities other than China in the last several years. It is only China that has massively increased its spending and its investment in technology. It built a fleet the size of the French Navy. Arguably, between 1 and 2 years, it invested enormously in technologies that are deeply frightening and have generated the pushback that has caused this concern.

No other country in Asia has seen exponential growth in its military capabilities other than China. Share on X

Is it targeting China? In part, it is a response to China’s dramatic increase in its own defence capabilities. When you match it to the rhetoric of wolf warrior diplomacy and the exercise of sharp power, the sanctions that the Koreans, Canadians, Swedes, Norwegians, and Australians have suffered have all been the battle, and it is deeply worrying.

Qinduo talked about the United States seeking a new Cold War. I find that construct completely unhelpful. The Cold War was between two separate political and economic powers. The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, China was not part of that after 1971. It was a closed-off world. There is little connection between them. They were isolated between the Iron Curtain, as I used to call it. Nowadays, the world is much more interconnected. I find helpful the metaphor of the Cold War.

What we are facing is now what we are calling the 6 seas and the 1 sea, the 1 global lake, which we all share the Global Maritime Commons, which, if you are flat out on a map, you realised that it is one lake that we all have to share. The level of which might be rising in pausing global climate change concerns. Nonetheless, what we are seeing is a continuum from cooperation to competition to contestation, coercion, and conflict.

That is happening now on a range of issues. There is a range of responses that countries across the region, Southeast Asia, the Quad countries and beyond in Europe are responding incrementally with some nuance on all of those issues. It is interesting to see China wanting to play in the CPTPP, and they are bought in on the RCEP. Australia has got a free trade agreement with China.

We will see whether, with this world trade organisation negotiations, China will honour its agreement to that because it imposed all these sanctions on Australia’s economic and trade sanctions that are clearly out of peak. They are a response to being annoyed at the goal of Australia, challenging China over the origins of the Coronavirus. Australia’s objection to Huawei, which Chinese legislation makes clear, is that its design has implications in terms of Australia’s domestic security.

China wants to join CPTPP. Let’s check out the ground rules here first. Who is included? What are the terms of reference? Are you going to lift the sanctions you are imposing on Australia that are purely arbitrary? Is Taiwan going to be admitted at the same time, much like we have with the Asia Pacific Economic Corporation? Forum is between economies.

If we are going to do that, the United States should be strongly encouraged to participate. If we want a level-playing field, we do not want a playing field where we become beholden to an authoritarian state that under President Xi, despite our best wishes and intentions for our relationship in the past, has proven far more assertive, authoritarian, and challenging than we had anticipated. The wolf warrior diplomacy points to a gravely chilling dimension to China finding its way with its great growing power that is deeply unsettling.

While our neighbours may be relatively mute about how strongly they support AUKUS or how deeply they disagree with AUKUS, the bottom line is that all of them are equally unnerved by wolf warrior diplomacy and sharp power. All of us are uneasy and uncomfortable. We want to see a change. We want to trade with China. Nobody wants to stop that. We want China to be a player, but we are deeply unsettled by the manifestation of this authoritarian government under President Xi.

In the interest of fairness, John, it could be construed from the Chinese perspective that it is an action-reaction. Where did this start? I will ask you, Qinduo, to maybe comment on that from the Chinese perspective because it strikes me the old saying, “There are always three sides to a story, yours, mine, and the truth.” That strikes me as particularly important in this context but also exceptionally important for the whole world because the risk posed by this is tremendous. Maybe your thoughts on the Chinese perspective.

This is a big topic. It takes a lot of time to pay attention to this nuanced position and the differences of some countries. When I was in Australia, I missed Australia, Melbourne, and the coffee. It was 2015 to 2016 when I left there. In 2017, I found in the media, and I still pay attention to, that there is a history of Chinese political interference, Chinese spying, Chinese students, Confucius Institutes, and everything in China is put in a negative light. China is threatening Australia’s economy, technology, and security.

From a Chinese point of view, I feel puzzled because if you ask anyone, even now on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai, what is your impression of Australia? 9 out of 10, I assure you people will say, “I have a good impression of Australia. They have a beautiful beach and nice people. It is a good place for their education, doing trade, immigration, or investment.” That is the impression.

When people talk about China threatening Australia, all Chinese may reach Sydney, as reported by some of the local media. I was amused. I was talking to a friend at that time. I said, “Look at the coverage. They have a clause describing the chance DF-21 could reach Sydney.” I said, “Unless China is crazy, we will never think of firing the missile toward Australia because, for Chinese people, Australia is never the rival, not to mention the enemy, or a country with hostility toward China.”

With that being said, we do have our problems. Mostly, this concern or fear on the Australian side is the lack of understanding or misunderstanding of China’s political system, Chinese culture, and China growing rapidly. “We are living this under the shadow of China. What will China do to us? How big a threat China will become to us if we don’t listen to them?”

Some of that is justified after the economic measures taken by Beijing. That does not help, probably. On the security issue, Australia appears to be an extension of Washington’s foreign policy. That is the understanding. People will say, “ That is all right. We are doing business with Australia. That is fine because we are not an enemy of the United States. We don’t see the US as an enemy of China. The US has war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. That is fine. We don’t agree with that, but that is okay.”

In 2017, there were all kinds of negative courage, but with substantial evidence about the Chinese interference in the internal affair of Australia. China has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries because China does not welcome other countries to interfere in its internal affairs. It has a strict policy of not getting involved in the domestic affairs of another country.

VOW 35 | AUKUS
AUKUS: China has a policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, mostly because China does not welcome other countries to interfere in its internal affairs.

 

When people say that, I would say, “It is not the case. China would hate to intervene in Australian politics like election and foreign policy.” China would love Australia to have a more friendly policy toward China. Every country would love to have that. That is understandable. They would not do something to intervene.

In 2018, after this negative coverage and discussion about China, Huawei was kicked out of the Australian market. Australia is the first country to kick Huawei out of its 5G network. That is negative in terms of the effects on the Chinese. It was not widely recovered, despite Australia being the first country, because people still think, “That is fine. Other countries will still use Huawei.”

What we know later on, there is an economic war or trade war launched by Trump against China. Huawei has become one of the top issues in this dispute between China and the US. Huawei was put under severe sanction by the US, and the US also put tremendous pressure on its allies to refuse Huawei to enter their market. That is not fair. You can say that. That is the case.

Plus, Huawei has a lot of negative sentiment inside Australia. You have this Australia calling for the investigation of the region of the pandemic of the virus over there. Many people say, “That is because Australia is the first country calling for an international investigation of the region of the virus. China retaliated against Australia.” That is not the case. It is an accumulation of a series of issues. For example, restrictions on Chinese investment and cancelling of contracts between the two countries. You can see the relationship, or the trust is somehow lost between the two countries. China took measures against Australia’s economic measures.

We see the relationship getting worse, unfortunately, but overall, on the Chinese side, they still see Australia as an important trading partner. China’s application to join CPTPP provides an opportunity for the two countries to fix their relationship. The Australian side will talk to the Chinese side, “If you want to join CPTPP, we should solve our problems first, and we can talk about other conditions.” There are factors for the two countries to use as an opportunity to fix the problem and improve their relationship and trust of two countries. When John talks about China’s military development, can I respond a little bit to that too? There are a lot of points over there.

VOW 35 | AUKUS
AUKUS: There are factors for the two countries to actually use that as an opportunity to fix the problem and improve their relationship and improve the trust opportunity.

 

I understand that. Please go ahead.

Many people say, “Chinese military development is threatening.” I would agree. China’s rapid military development is a fact, and there’s no denying about that. We should take that into perspective. China is the second largest economy. Naturally, it will spend a certain percentage of its GDP on its own defence, as every country does. 1.7% of its defence spending is a lot of money. If you compare that to the US, it is about 3.7% of the GDP on military spending. China’s spending, percentage-wise, is lower than Korea, Vietnam, and Australia. Australia is a 2.1% percentage of GDP military spending.

On the one hand, that is a natural development. I would argue country develops an economy. You have your interest to protect, for example, 1 belt or 1 road. China has an interest in every corner of the world. China is not building military posts everywhere around the world like the US does to protect its interests because China does not believe that is the best choice to protect its interests. You would ask, “Why is China still building its military?” It is mostly periphery or security, for example, the Taiwan and South China Sea issues. That is the biggest concern.

China has its interest in every corner of the world today. But China is not building military posts everywhere around the world like the US does to protect its interests, because China does not believe that's the best choice to protect its interests. Share on X

Remember, China has neighbouring countries on the border. It was fourteen countries. You have neighbouring countries overseas, like Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asian countries. There is a security issue. Mostly, it is about the US. It is not about Australia, UK, France, or Germany. The US would say they would do everything to defend Taiwan in the event of a war. For the Chinese side, what would you do?

Let’s put the sovereignty issue aside a little bit. As a big country with a strong tradition of unification of the country in terms of territorial integrity and independence, they would say, “We don’t rely on Russia or any other country. We would rely on ourselves to protect ourselves.” If you look at the development, some would say it is about deterring tools of weapons. They want to use a weapon to prevent the US involvement in the cross-the-street relationship or any event of a war. If Taiwan declares independence now, there will be a military conflict. That is a test for China and Washington, but you always prepare for the worst. In that sense, Chinese military development is not for Australia. It is not targeting any other country, but mostly the China-US relationship.

Maz, this is fascinating grist for the mill. I’m glad to hear all this. It is an interesting chronology, Qinduo, and I appreciate you outlining it. It is comparing and contrasting. Maz, you made the point earlier about there being three perspectives. You are right because I got another perspective. I look back to 2017. Malcolm Turnbull was the Prime Minister of Australia. This is the man who was pushing for the free trade agreement with China. He was speaking up about the positives of the relationship with China. He had nothing but positive things to say about the relationship with China.

He launched Hugh White’s publication, his book on the China issues. It wasn’t The China Choice. That was his next one. He has written a few on the same permutations of the same issue. Malcolm Turnbull happily launched it. He was sympathetic and got the sense that this was all well and good. Yet, things started to change.

When he became Prime Minister, he started getting briefed on a range of things happening, the foreign interference that Qinduo touched on, the espionage, and the attempts to buy off people like Sam Dastyari, which blew up in Sam’s face and brought to mind the issue of foreign in interference. The Asia Annual Reports have been featuring this for a number of years now, but they started to spike from about 2015, ‘16, and ‘17 onwards.

The Confucius Institutes became closely associated with a policy straight jacket. You had to conform to a PRC political perspective on Chinese history and culture, which, for liberal institutions like the Australian National University, where I belong, was intolerable. That is not the way we operate. We don’t get told how to think, research, or teach. Qinduo said there is little evidence. There is a fair amount of evidence. It is cumulatively. There is enough stuff there.

Along the way, Australia started pushing back on Huawei. There is a degree of crosschecking of notes with the United States, but people didn’t appreciate Australia’s enormously invested in its security relationship with the United States. The United States matters to Australia enormously. It has done from 1941 to 1942. We commemorated many years of this Alliance. It is a piece of paper, 800 words long essay.

The trellis upon which many other bilateral and multilateral relationships are built is incredibly important to Australia’s sense of its place in the world. In an attempt to reconcile Australia’s fear of abandonment and entrapment, it’s come down on the view that it needs to support the United States. There is an interesting book written by one of our people at the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs by Shannon Tow called Independent Ally.

Australia makes its policy decisions based on its estimation of its interests. They happen to align with its perception of the interest of the United States. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has come out talking in a way that is critical of Australia. That has generated considerable pushback on Huawei. It is worth making the point that it was an assessment made on the prospects of a system that was potentially going to be dominant, exert an undue and disproportionate influence on Australian politics and Australian ability to operate independently if it was to allow Huawei to get its way.

The technology is reasonably well understood. The 5G technology and the barriers that were available for 3G and 4G technology to protect parts of the core infrastructure that were seen as part of national security infrastructure are much less able to be secured if you are going to adopt Huawei technology. That was in 2020, as Qinduo pointed out. In the COVID investigation, China sought to retaliate as a response to an accumulation of the issues. There is no question in my mind. Australia handled that pretty clumsily. We could have done better, but it wasn’t invalid.

What surprises me, Qinduo, why didn’t President Xi take this, flip it, and say, “Australia, you are right. We are going to take the lead in investigating this completely, transparently, and thoroughly. We are going to prove to the world that we are the responsible agent. We are going to make sure there is never a repeat of the COVID virus. We are going to lead the world in making sure that the global community will never suffer a pandemic like this again.”

Maybe that is a good question to ask. Why would that not have happened, Qinduo?

Looking back on what happened between China and Australia, both countries could have handled their relationship in a better way. They have to step back a little bit and have more trust and talk to each other. We could have done a better job at maintaining a strong trust and relationship between the two countries in that we would have a security guarantee. There is no fear of each other.

Step back a little bit and have more trust and talk to each other. We could have done a better job at maintaining a strong trust, a strong relationship between the two countries in that. And then we would have a security guaranteed. Share on X

As for the specific question, at that time, Donald Trump was still there. There was a lot of talk in the United States. They say, “China should compensate for the loss of people’s life or medical expenses.” People talk about the trillions of dollars. China should pay, not only for the US but for the entire world. That would mean the end of China. There is a serious concern in Beijing. People will say, “If we corporate in a more corporate manner to deal with the issue, somehow, you would admit, ‘It is our fault. The origin is in Wuhan, China.”

The international environment made things somehow difficult to handle. When Australia stood out and called for the investigation, China said, “Australia was right. We should do this.” It was like, “China is fooling Australia for big powers, big countries.” China would say, “No problem.” If WHO calls for an investigation, China is fully cooperating with WHO, but probably not with any other individual country, including the US.

This highlights an issue. Nation-level confirmation bias comes into play. Every nation undoubtedly can find examples where another nation has done something wrong to tie in John’s points about Huawei. I published a paper on some of the grey zone warfare concerns from countries like Russia and China. There are ample examples. I have no doubt. China and Russia can find examples of the Western nations, including Australia playing in what they perceive to be their sovereign space, whether in the digital domain or on their home soil. I have no doubt that every side can do that, and therein lies the issue.

I wonder if a lot of this rhetoric that we are hearing is for domestic audiences because it is certainly for Australia. As you said, China doesn’t consider Australia to be a threat. It has to do with the US. Australia has sided with the US. For many reasons, as John identified, that is not a surprise. China has no concern about that. How much risk are we exposing the world to these rhetorics that are for the domestic audience?

China couldn’t admit Wuhan is the origin of the virus investigation because it couldn’t be perceived as weak domestically to protect its own survival, particularly not by a country that is seen as a middle-level country like Australia. Where do we go from here? How do we steer the ship? Domestic audiences require every individual country to assert dominance to show they are powerful. Otherwise, their face risk domestically, whether in a democratic system or CPTPP.

My sense is this reveals a degree of nervousness and vulnerability domestically on the Chinese front. That is understandable. Everybody loves a good set of double standards. Everybody likes a set of standards for themselves and someone else or others. That applies to international relations. We all like to point out the faults of the other and never like to admit our own. Australia is as guilty of this as everybody else. We are all as bad as each other. It is helpful if we admit that to each other and ourselves if we are honest with ourselves about that.

I like what Qinduo said. We need to be thinking about ways that extricate ourselves from this corner we find ourselves in. We don’t want things to get worse. We want things to get better. It is important for us to be realistic about what we are facing. I wanted to touch on a couple of things, particularly about the military spending of China and China’s economic vulnerability. It is spending 1.7% of its GDP, apparently. I’m not sure if the figures are accurate. We don’t have great transparency.

We don't want things to get worse. We want things to get better. But it may be important for us to be realistic about what we're facing. Share on X

In Australia, we have defence white papers and outspoken, open declaratory policy making clear how we spend our money and the reasons we spend our money the way we do. China is much more opaque about that. It would be helpful, in my view, if China was more transparent about its funding and its intentions.

Thinking about intentions. I’m a historian. I love history. There is a limit to the parallel. There is a parallel between the emergence of China in the 21st century and the emergence of the British Empire. Britain experienced the Industrial Revolution. It had coal and the invention of steam engines. It needed markets and raw materials. It started expanding its empire for markets and raw materials. It needed security for those East India companies and corporations that were semi-state corporations. It sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? That needed security. They needed governance.

When Francis Drake explored the ocean, there was no manifesto for British domination of the world. It happened incrementally over a couple of hundred years. What we are seeing is China’s emergence as an empire on steroids. There is no manifesto or declaration for Chinese domination of the world. It is a manifestation of the trade and economic dynamics. It needs raw materials, markets, and security of supply. It is worried about the Malacca Strait, understandably. It got a small exclusive economic zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It wants to expand in the South China Sea. It wants to buy up islands in the South Pacific, like Kiribas.

It is perfectly understandable on one level, but we need to be clear about what is going on. While there is no manifesto of Chinese global domination, there is fear, particularly in light of President Xi’s opaque management of an increasingly authoritarian state with a massive increase in defence spending. This is generating enormous nerves globally, which is why you are seeing Britain playing in Asia. The German frigate was coming to Australia. The Dutch are playing. The Canadians are talking about playing in the Indo-Pacific. The French have been there for a while.

All of these now talking about of Indo-Pacific strategy. Why? It is because they got nervous. It is a nervousness that China could dispel if it chose to behave differently and be more transparent and open in its approach to society. Here, the Taiwan question comes in because Taiwan is a humiliating demonstration of what an open democracy with Chinese characteristics looks like.

Unfortunately, the handling of Hong Kong, where the 1 country, 2 systems were at work for several decades, the cancellation of 1 country, 2 systems has sent a powerful and chilling message to Taiwan, Japan, and other regions that China is not going to tolerate anything else. That means that Taiwan, this beacon of democracy, this country that is an economic dynamo in and of its own right country, that is the population of Australia. It is, by example, showing up at Xi, and Xi is China.

It seems such a shame to me that Xi doesn’t take this and flip it. Much like I tried to say, “We should flip the whole COVID thing.” Why doesn’t Xi flip this and say, “We realise the greater path for the dialectic of communism is if we rebadge it.” They have rebadged communism half a dozen times already. Let’s face it. It doesn’t look anything like what Mao Chairman talked about. He was like, “Let’s rebadge it and make it look a bit like Taiwanese democracy.”

Allow for some democracy in the one-party state. You call it the parties within the party. There are ways you can skin this cat differently that can allay fears, but maybe Qinduo can enlighten us more. My sense is perhaps one of the reasons why that doesn’t happen is because Presidential Xi is more nervous than he is letting on.

One other point is about the spending on defence. The United States was instrumental in inviting China into the World Trade Organisation. It is now spending to compete with the United States. That is a real travesty. That is a shame. Japan never felt it needed to compete with the United States. When it was the top dog in the ’70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and the United States was worried about Japan, Japan did not boost its spending beyond 1% of GDP, even though it probably could have.

My sense is it is such a real shame that China is not viewing this as a partnership rather than seeing this as a competition, a contestation, and a conflict. It did not look to see this more like a sporting competition rather than a war. This is why the continuum is useful to think of in a positive way and why I’m upbeat about the Quad.

The Quad, coming out of one year’s office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, you hear about it in dark mannequin in terms. I’m thinking, “This is good. Competition is good.” Getting India to look beyond itself and invest in vaccines in the Pacific, why is that bad? That is not bad. That is good. Getting Australia and India to cooperate, we have been trying to do that for decades and generations. That is good. Engaging with Japan is good. Japan got relatively good relations with everybody. It wants to have better relations with ships in China.

A colleague of mine, Amy King, did a BSc thesis on the investment Japan made in China in the acts of reparation as much as anything in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Japan did it in a quite generous way with self-interest in mind. Everybody does. China has erased that from its history. Why did you bother to erase it? There are some good things happening between China and Japan.

We will let Qinduo respond to some of those questions because I can see him nodding. I’m conscious of that. These are all big topics.

Let me respond a little bit to China and Japan, mostly about the Diaoyu Islands. There is a Japanese name for it. The controversy was developed in 2012 or even earlier. Around that time, the opposition party of Japan came to power. The opposition party has a good relationship with China. Unfortunately, they had no experience in handling domestic and foreign affairs. They somehow received advice to nationalise the Diaoyu Islands. They think that it will be easier to handle the relationship with China.

From the Chinese point of view, to nationalise the Diaoyu Islands is a formal announcement of the Diaoyu Islands belonging as a part of Japan. That is a change of status quo, which there is a dispute, but we don’t touch upon that. Japan can claim that it is part of Japan. China can claim that it is part of China. As a phoney issue, leave it aside and focus on our cooperation. The declaration of nationalisation of the islands changed the status quo, and there was a strong response from the Chinese side. We see the worsening of the relationship between the two countries. That is unfortunate. They should have handled it in a much better way.

Let’s respond a little bit to what John said about the China and US competition. I see that there is an expectation. China could become the second Japan, largely following the lead of the US and be part of the mostly West-dominated international system. Most of the part of the time, China works in the WTO and international organisations like IMF and World Bank. China is part of that. They are working with Western countries. There are some disputes, but that is okay. People can manage that differences.

As China continues to grow, there’s an issue. Realists in the US fundamentally call it a structure issue because there is only one country that could be at the top. With China continuing to grow, China’s growth is a challenge to the US primacy and international primacy. The trade war was launched by Donald Trump. It was not launched by China. People tend to say, “China and US trade war and tackle war.” China would love to sit down to talk to the US side and solve the problem instead of having that tariffs on production and services from another country because neither country can benefit from that practice. That is the case.

Biden administration is talking about fierce competition with China. Chinese people would ask the question, “Competing for what? China is not competing with the United States.” John also said, “Competition is good. Competition in technology is good.” We should be open and see which country can do better in R&D. That will help human beings. All of us will benefit from the advancement in US technology or China technology. It is partly because of the lack of trust between the two countries.

Since 2015, there has been a big debate inside the US about whether our engagement policy with China has failed in the sense that China is not becoming Western-style democracy. People will say, “We failed to change China into a democracy.” Why would you want to change China into a Western democracy? It is a philosophy used to people talk about different political systems. Which system works better? I will give that. China has a lot to catch on in terms of openness, market access, transparency, and being more free. China could do a lot in that respect because that will benefit China.

I study in Australia. I know Australia is an open and free society. That also explains why people are afraid. Once you sense that China is somehow not our friend, you focus on Chinese activity and see everything is wrong. Chinese involvement or investment in Australia is tiny compared to the investment from the United States, the UK, and the Netherlands. People see Chinese investment is like a monster. No, it is a small amount of Chinese investment.

Perception matters. Unfortunately, if you have such a negative perception, everything about China is somehow being seen in a negative light. China is not competing with the US for global dominance. I understand the concern and nervousness of countries like Australia, the UK, European countries, and other neighbouring countries. Chinese people are not sensitive enough to that. We would say, “China is still a developing country. China is still far away from being a rich country.” In terms of per capita GDP, China ranks 80 somewhere around the world. It is still in the middle. People will say, “We still have a long way to go.” People don’t see their progress as something impressive as seen from overseas.

There is a discrepancy between the perception. People are not sensitive enough to our neighbouring countries concerned about our behaviour, policy, rhetoric, politicians, or spokesperson. If you say something, there is an impact because you are a big country. In that sense, China should learn to improve in that respect because China is not a big power. Now it is becoming a big power. Somehow, it is not sophisticated enough to communicate with the outside world, including countries like Australia. We could do a good job in that sense. That is part of the issue.

Can I pick up on something you said, Qinduo, because it speaks to another point and a thought that pops up? I read a good book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers. It is about the impact of culture and why certain cultures are tight, like China, in the sense they have strict norms and rules, as opposed to countries like Australia that are loose, where about everything goes and we are open and transparent. It comes down to pressures and survival. It’s a book by Michele Gelfand. She is a prominent researcher in the field of culture.

Another one that also springs to mind is I interviewed Douglas Fields, who wrote another great book, Why We Snap. He provided nine neurological triggers that exist both individually and in societies and why countries respond in certain ways. I want to bring in one point here, and I want to ask you what you think.

It strikes me as though we in the West don’t necessarily give enough credence to the insult China perceives from its growth and past. We can bring in the century of humiliation, and the rhetoric of that has deep emotional ties. China perhaps does understand how the Western world sees the established world order being threatened. All of these are triggers for emotional outbursts and non-rational responses. What are your thoughts on that? I’ll maybe go to Qinduo first, and we will go to John.

Culturally, tradition and history play an important part in every country in our perception of the outside world and relationship with other countries. History is relevant. That explains why Chinese people, including the government, are sensitive to being treated in an unequal way and lack of respect. They perceive. If they see that as respect or disrespect, they would respond in an active way. If they are treated with equality and respect, there is a nice response.

Tradition and history do play very important parts in every country in our perception of the outside world, about our relationship with other countries. Share on X

It is not only China. If you look at the mostly developing countries, once colonised by the UK or France, in general, people are sensitive to how they are being treated and seen. If you talk to people from African countries and Indians included. With China’s development, people are becoming more confident. People would say, “We are equal. We can do things in a way we can start with each other in a more equal manner.” We know that this world is still dominated by the US and the West at large. People sometimes will see these things or that matter is not dealt with in an equal way or manner. Naturally, there will be some issues and differences between China and the US in that sense.

The pandemic crisis created this big problem for people to mingle and visit each other and for scholars to talk to each other and share, “What do you think about this issue on that issue?” We communicate more and understand the other side. In that way, we can better deal with our relationship. Sometimes, we don’t understand why you are thinking in that way or why you do things in that manner.

There is a rationale and explanation we need to understand. I don’t think China is in a position to be described as aggressive, offensive, assertive, or trying to start disputes with other countries. China’s primary focus is a domestic issue. That is why the Chinese government is stressed so much about stability because our history tells us if there is chaos for a population of 1.4 billion people, they will cause big trouble for the entire nation.

That is why they stress so much about norms and order. That also explains China compared with Western society, in general, is different in a sense. If you go deeper to the heart, you will see we are more or less the same. People are friendly and nice to each other. If you look at Australian and Chinese people, they are good friends. I have a lot of friends in Australia. Similarly, I believe John has friends in China too.

We need somehow to strengthen understanding and reduce misunderstanding and mistrust. China and US have big issues. That is, how to deal with this relationship? If China continues to grow, how will the US deal with another country which is a peer power in terms of technology, military power, and economy? Will the US view China as an equal partner? Will the US view China as a country? “We need to do to slow the pace of Chinese innovation or growth,” one US official said. It is a big choice for Washington too.

I want to go back to your point about the trade war launched by Trump. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. Trump was responding to a strong domestic political stimulus, which was the Rust Belt and the sense of technological espionage on an industrial scale. Many of the items of technology in China appeared to look remarkably like technology that was originally designed or built in the United States. Its perception is reality. Let’s face it. There is a sense of grievance in the United States that China joined the WTO and played and tricked the United States. This is something that Trump tapped into. Biden is struggling to deal with this. That is an important point to note.

I would also point out that China talks about the centre of humiliation. I like to stress that. I’m thinking, “Can we not move on?” I get that. That was terrible what happened. Japan has tried to make amends. The world is a different place, even in Australia. It was only in 1967 that we got rid of the White Australia Policy. That was racist.

Australia nowadays, in policy terms, is not. It is a multicultural country. A quarter of our population is migrants. About a good half of that is from Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. It is a diverse, inclusive and welcoming country now. To harp on about the centre of humiliation, it is an anachronistic concept. No one is contemplating taking the racist policies that were in the case that Australia was founded on many years ago. We are a long way away from that.

John, on that point, isn’t that the issue Australia is trying to reconcile with its indigenous population? It is about not acknowledging history in the past.

If you look at what is happening, state governments are looking to develop treaties. There is some denial in parts of the population. These are the few governments. We have eight state and territory governments. We have a federal government. We have different parties. In that mix, there is a mixture of views bubbling up. The treaties are emerging. There is a lot of debate and contestation, which is healthy. There are far more acknowledgement of this than ever before. As a kid, I grew up and never heard these stories. Now I have a much greater awareness.

I would do the same. Should we, as a world, do the same?

I’m a big fan of Karl Popper and his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. I’m concerned that China is an increasingly closed society. We have seen the great firewall of China emerge. When Bill Clinton was President of the United States, he saw the internet as this liberating, equalising, and empowering of democracy and freedom of political expression. That has been completely reversed in the case of China and other countries that have sought to emulate its approach to the use of technology to control the state.

That is a shame. It has reinforced this fear of not a democracy because democracies, as they say, don’t go to war against each other. An authoritarian state that is run away from democracy and tried to reinforce authoritarianism under President Xi, in particular, is generating pushback and fear in countries like the United States.

Let’s not forget, the United States is a particularly war-like country. It conducted a Civil War where Americans killed Americans in the hundreds of thousands. It is a war that is still deeply engaging for Americans to this day. It is a country that built up its military capabilities. It got an Armed Force that is an incredibly expensive hammer looking for a nail.

China has been clever about refusing to present a nail in the South China Sea, grey zone operations, and application of worldwide diplomacy. It assiduously avoided presenting a nail. I would contend that America’s nervousness and unease about its place in the world make the military option more attractive than ever. That is something China has a role to play in allaying the concerns that are generating momentum for that as an option.

VOW 35 | AUKUS
AUKUS: America’s nervousness, its unease about its place in the world, makes the military option more attractive than ever.

 

Van Jackson, an academic American guy in New Zealand at the moment, has talked about American foreign policy being misguided and overly emphasising the military solution. I think he is right. America is afraid that its economic power is waning. Relatively speaking, it feels the economic lever is not as strong and therefore, is clutching onto the military one greater than ever.

China has a role to play here in allaying its concerns. It needs to be looking to the future, not about the great rejuvenation or the ending of the century of humiliation. China has already come out. It came out in 2008 with the Olympic Games and the global financial crisis. How much assurance do you need? You are going to get it again with the Winter Olympics.

Let’s now be the bigger party. Let’s take the chip off our shoulders and the magnanimous great power and start doing what Teddy Roosevelt did. This is one of the great lines of American presidents, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Speak softly, China. Come on. You can do it. You don’t need to be speaking loudly anymore. You are already a great power. Stop spreading fear. Stop scaring the horses. Change your ways a bit. Be a little bit softer.

Qinduo, your response to that.

There is an interesting comment from John. Let me respond a little bit about this. Western people describe that as a victim of the psychology of the Chinese side. People say, “There is a good side and a bad side.” Within China, there is also discussion. We need to move on because we are a big power now, at least in the GDP, size, and history. This is a big country we should see ourselves, not only within China but also from outside China, in a more objective and balanced way. We have a responsibility for the peace and stability of this region and world.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what China is doing. China and the US view differently about the UN. China is a second contributor to your embodied, as it should be. China is a second contributor to the peacekeeping operation fees. China is the largest contributor of peacekeepers. Among the Big Five or UN-secured council members, China provides the largest number of peacekeepers. If you plus that with this standby police force, China is the largest contributor to peacekeepers to the UN. China sees, “That is my role to play. I want to contribute to peacekeeping.” China is doing that.

I will give you another example of China moving ahead. You can always find a problem with China. You can always criticise this and that. There are also on the other side. For example, Xi Jinping promised this goes 20, 30, and 60 peaking of carbon emissions and neutrality. That is a big promise. That promise surprised the world as well as the Chinese audience.

There are complaints inside China saying, “The President is making such a promise. That is a big promise. As a developing country, we have a long way to go.” You noticed the shortage of power. In China, some of the factories were asked to operate only 3 or 4 days a week because of the lack of electricity. That is partly because of the quota. For every province, you have a quota to produce emissions, and you are not allowed to emit carbon dioxide beyond that quota amount.

You see, there is a strict implementation of the climate change promises of China. Do you see that as responsible behaviour or as irresponsible behaviour? I would say China is trying to be hard to be responsible in terms of climate change. If China wants to be a spoiler to the world, China can say, We are a developing country. We cannot do that.” Nobody expects China to reach neutrality in 2060.

China is smart. In terms of renewable energy, China is the biggest investor. China sees that as another revolution. China thinks, “We should do big in that respect. That is good for the world. That is good for China too.” If you look at the installation and export of these solar panels, EVs, batteries, and wind turbines, China is the largest in the world. One-third of this renewable technology or patents comes from China. Other people say, “China probably in the past copied technologies from the US and other developers in the world.” I also have to say, “China is investing in that respect to be more innovative and productive.”

Let me also respond a little bit about Trump’s trade war with China. John mentioned that, and I agree with John because of the domestic concern in the Rust Belt on the US side. When I was in the United States as a correspondent, the Chinese Ambassador told us to also write stories about the US’ difficulties. The Chinese audience has a better understanding of the US’ difficulty because the US has a difficulty. The Chinese side should understand. We can come to a middle point consensus of what both sides should do something to help resolve the issue. The issue remains now, and the manufacturing is great.

I would add one point about globalisation. It is outsourcing multinational companies. Naturally, they would do outsourcing because that gives them a more competitive edge with cheaper labour and source. They found China to be a good destination and Vietnam too. How to say that is a natural course of development of big business?

If you look at China, there is also concern nowadays. Companies are migrating to Vietnam and Bangladesh because the labourers are cheaper. It is not even about foreign companies. Chinese companies would move to Vietnam and Bangladesh. What can you do? You cannot say, “You cannot move.” You can only increase your competitive edge by providing, like, “I have robots and back policy. I can give you more incentive to stay, hire my workers, and contribute to the economy.”

For European countries and the US, globalisation doesn’t have a corresponding domestic policy to mitigate this severe or adverse impact of globalisation. That is the impact of their industrialisation on their workers. They don’t have such a policy. They see the suffering of their people. Politicians tend to point fingers at others instead of looking at themselves. There’s a lack of such a policy, and you see a big issue over there.

In 2008 and 2007, we had a financial crisis. Even nowadays, the US is a bit struggling with that. What can we do? We need to rethink the issue. The US is working hard to draw all the companies back to the US. If the US provides that policy, investors will go there. For example, the Chinese are the biggest producer of glasses. They have a factory in the US. In the US, taxes are low and competitive. It is much lower than the Chinese taxes. They go to the US. Every country, in a competitive world, will do what it can to attract investors and business. Simply blaming your competitor is not a solution, unfortunately.

I have a couple of concluding remarks. It is probably worth making. There is a great line from Winston Churchill that said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others.” Democracy in Australia is messy. Democracy is a beacon. It is an attractive proposition for many, even in authoritarian states. Many people are attracted to the idea of having a say and their voice counting. Maybe that is the next stage of development for China. It can think about opening up a bit more.

VOW 35 | AUKUS
AUKUS: Democracy is a beacon. It’s a very attractive proposition for many, even in authoritarian states. Many people really are attracted to the idea of having a say in their voice counting.

 

The other thing I would make the point is we all have to share this planet. The point about the environment, needing to be smarter about the way we do business and worried about climate change, pollution, and degradation. We have to make this work. We do need to change our perspectives a little bit. Australia, China, the United States, and all of us need to change our perspectives and think about the challenges we face that we share.

There are some efforts, and COP26 is part of that. It is a pity that President Xi and President Putin are not going to be there. That is a real shame. It is important that all of us recognise that there are some higher-order issues that hold that we share. That is about self-interest. It should drive a rethink in Australia, China, and elsewhere about how we manage our relationships and priorities.

You touched on before about the United Nations. China is already a dominant player in the United Nations. It is a permanent five-member of the UN Security Council. It has got senior appointments in many of the UN-related bodies. The United States has a big stake in this. We all have a stake in this. We need to make it work. If we look at it as a zero-sum game, we will see conflict. We got to stop seeing it as zero-sum. We got to see it as something we all have to share in and find a happy medium in.

I look back to when I first started at the Strategic and Defence Study Center at ANU. I’m talking and writing about the positive dimensions of the relationship between China and Australia and the opportunities for the defence to defence talks and increased collaboration. It would be nice if we could get back to that. I don’t think that is too optimistic or naive on my part to see as being possible. There is some change that needs to happen.

There is a degree of humility required by people and countries that should be more self-confident about their place in the world and the need to look above their own position and see the spectrum of challenges we face, governance challenges, environmental challenges, and great power contestation and sharing. Thank you, Qinduo and Maz.

Qinduo, your closing remarks. Any final comment?

Thank you, John. I largely agree with John. We should give up this zero-sum mentality or the perception of the world. We need cooperation to deal with our common challenge. For example, climate change. We know that climate change is a big threat to Australia, China, the US, and every country in the world and also this pandemic. It is a pity not to see cooperation between China and the US. These two biggest countries should do more to work together and help save the world. Unfortunately, because of politics, that is not the case.

We have democracies in the West, although democracies vary from country to country. In every country, there is a degree of democracy and a degree of authoritarianism. Otherwise, you wouldn’t run as a government. That is a fact. I would describe the Chinese system as a centralised system. If you look at Chinese history, as long as there is a strong central government, there are stability and prosperity. If the central government is weak, you will see warlords and chaos. Unfortunately, the Chinese are sensitive to that.

System-wise, it probably will remain the same. China can afford to be more open and closely engaged with the rest of the world, in particular, rich Western countries. We should come together to talk to each other more about our concerns and understanding. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes not accurate in that sense because nobody is seeking war, conflicts, and disputes. We should pay less attention to military operations and more attention to cooperation in research and development, investment, trade, people-to-people communication, and bringing our diplomats face-to-face to talk to each other like us. A lot of a problem would be easier be resolved.

Gentlemen, that is a wonderful note to end on, and I couldn’t agree more. There is a lot more diplomacy that is required. I was hoping to get to questions to explore opportunities of mutual benefit between China and the West at large. Climate change was certainly going to be one of those topics. I hope to invite you both in the future to join me for another one of these because, as you both have highlighted, this is what we need. We need some more dialogue and perspective taking off the other side. On that note, gentlemen, thank you for giving me so much of your time. I know we have gone well over our agreed time.

Thank you, Maz. Thank you, John.

 

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