Advice holds: see China as it is, not as it ought to be - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Advice holds: see China as it is, not as it ought to be

A good mate of mine died this year. He was 90 — four decades my senior — and I think of him a lot and miss him very much. His name was Owen Harries, once a significant foreign policy player in Canberra and Washington.

During the 25 years of our intimate friendship, I never completed a discussion with Owen without having been made to think about something that mattered. Many more important people — from Liberal figures Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock to leading neoconservatives Irving Kristol and Charles Kraut­hammer, to US national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski — would have said the same.

According to Scott Morrison and Marise Payne, Owen was “one of the architects of Australia’s modern foreign policy”.

I often wonder what Owen would make of the deteriorating state of relations with China this year. Like most Australians, he supported engagement — as he wrote in 2000, “an illusionless engagement that does not mistake itself for partnership, that is tough-minded and alert to abuse of the relationship by Beijing”. He also represented the realist school of foreign policy thought, with its belief in the inevitability of power politics. If Owen were alive today, my sense is he would see China as it is, not how it ought to be.

He had, after all, no time for utopian­ism. He recognised that utopian beliefs — longings for a perfect, harmonious world, free of conflict and evil — are strong in the human breast and nowhere stronger than in Australia and the US. (Owen used to say it is hard to sustain utopian illusions if, say, you live your life in Poland or Is­rael; easier if you are insulated from other major powers by two huge oceans and have neighbours who are too nice or too weak to threaten you.)

We often talked about the utopian idea that a world of nation states would be replaced by a “global village”. This argument, which gained currency at the end of the Cold War, held that enmity between peoples was the result of misunderstanding and ignorance rather than genuine conflicts of interest. A more interdependent world, it was assumed, would mean peace and harmony.

Owen made several points to rebut the thesis.

First, the most interdependent institution ever constructed by human beings is the family, yet most murders occurred in or around the family. Second, real villages, as opposed to metaphorical ones, are usually not havens of sweetness and light but are characterised by a great deal of suspicion, envy, enforced conformity, rivalry, feuds and intrusive interferences in the affairs of neighbours. Proximity and interaction can just as well mean more conflict as more harmony.

Owen’s final point: reflect on the fact Europe in 1914 — on the eve of the Great War — had achieved a degree of economic interdependence that was unprecedented, and quite comparable to the level existing among states before the pandemic.

Viewed through Owen’s prism, if utopianism has been an obstacle to clear thinking about international relations (which leads us to see the world as it ought to be rather than as it is), another has been habit (that is, seeing China as it was rather than as it is). Owen recognised that habit is one of the most powerful forces in human life, not least because it is such a labour-saving device, making it possible to dispense with thought. He often quoted 19th-century British prime minister Lord Salisbury: “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”

We can see that error being committed every day in the relentless criticism of the Morrison government’s dealings with China. In recent times, especially since Canberra’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, a group of academics, columnists, business lobbyists and former diplomats has attacked Australia for provoking our largest trade partner. If only we could rebuild trust with Beijing, we are told. As a result, the critics reflect powerful, deeply ingrained habits that have existed since Gough Whitlam’s opening to China nearly a half-century ago. These habits persist despite radically altered circumstances.

Far from becoming a responsible stakeholder in world affairs, a hyper-nationalist China has used the COVID-19 crisis to expand its reach and influence and to threaten the status quo.

Witness its escalating defence spending, its build-up of military outposts in the South China Sea, its persistent cyber-espionage, its huge disinformation campaigns, its “wolf warrior” threats to our sovereignty, its intimidation of Taiwan, its takeover of Hong Kong, and so on.

Anxiety about Xi Jinping’s China is hardly confined to the Liberal Party’s “Wolverines”.

The ignoring of changed circumstances and the persistence of habit denote not only laziness. For some, it is functionally necessary. It is not being cynical to point out that many of the advocates of close ties with Beijing represent huge vested interests, in terms of careers, contracts, consultancies, reputations and so on. Trade is important, but security trumps prosperity.

Bear all this in mind when you hear the latest outpouring of utopianism. It just leads us to see China as it ought to be rather than as it is. Somewhere, Owen would agree.

Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at ABC Radio National.