The China-Australia partnership should be tended carefully by both sides

By Wang Zhenyu | | Updated: 2017-03-20 14:49

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a successful visit to Australia a month ago. But if Wng Yi's trip concluded with a broad consensus to support globalization, tap the potential of the two countries' economic complementarity, and enhance trust and win-win cooperation, and created a friendly and welcoming atmosphere for the imminent visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop's "unusually pointed message to China" in her recent speech in Singapore seemed to purposely seek to create a counter-effect.

In her speech entitled "Change and uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific: Strategic challenges and opportunities", Bishop called on the United States to stay in the Indo-Pacific and assume leadership for peace and prosperity, labeling China a "non-democracy".

The Australian foreign minister has delivered the wrong message in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You have just said goodbye to your guest from a neighboring country and are about to welcome an important guest from the country that you have invited to visit, but before greeting your new guest you go and say things bad about the country the guest comes from. That is not the hospitality that East Asia countries are used to. That is not diplomacy.

Bishop's labeling of China as a "non-democracy" is neither appropriate nor acceptable. Her standards are problematic. If she knows the history of China, she would know that China has been pursuing democracy at least since the May Fourth Movement. The People's Republic of China was established through the democratic process, and that democratic process has never stopped and is still being continued through reforms.

Yes, China's democracy may not be identical to that of Australia. But, China's democracy is based on China's own situation. The only viable democratic path for China is the one that suits the reality of China and its development stage. Democracy remains one of the core values of China.

And while labeling China a "non-democracy", Bishop seems ignorant of the tremendous benefits that "non-democracy" has created and which Australia has benefited from.

This so-called non-democracy contributes over 30 percent of the world's economic growth and serves as the single strongest driving force for the global economy.

This so-called non-democracy has undertaken the lion's portion of the global endeavor to eliminate poverty and continues to contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by lifting over 10 million people out of poverty each year, creating an ever increasing middle-income population that enjoys overseas trips to countries such as Australia, a growing demand that is yet to be fully catered to.

This so-called non-democracy is in fact a beneficiary of the rule-based international order and sees no reason for sabotaging it. China benefits from economic globalization and speaking at Davos in January, President Xi Jinping upheld both globalization and the relevant multilateral institutions at a time when they were battling headwinds.

The contribution of this so-called non-democracy has not been deservedly recognized in the current rule-based order and its institutions. It waits patiently and observes the rules as always. Even though still not granted market economy status as promised, it still serves as a role-model for following WTO rules.

This so-called non-democracy was responsible and bold enough to sign and ratify the Paris Climate Agreement despite the fact that it has all reasons not to as a developing country. And having signed and ratified it, it will not retreat from its commitment.

This so-called non-democracy thinks of and serves the neighborhood when able to and it has initiated the Belt and Road Initiative in pursuit of greater connectivity along with relevant institutions and facilities.

This so-called non-democracy exercised the utmost restraint in managing a regional dispute, more than any other democracy would likely demonstrate in the same situation.

If any self-proclaimed democracy says this is not enough, I challenge it to do the same.

But while China acts, it is continually told it should do this and that just because it is not a democracy of a style preferred by others. While China upholds the rule-based order, it is insinuated that rising China may lead to regional tensions as it is a "non-democracy".

Such ill-founded naming and shaming is nothing but an attempt to isolate China from the regional community and sow discord in the region, especially in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea was fairly calm before 2010. However, the calm was disturbed by the seemingly justified claim of having "the right to continue to sail and fly through the shipping lanes". That right has never been challenged or changed. Australia, and especially its foreign minister, have played a considerable part in disturbing the calm by urging China to abide by the "rule-based order". China will never be so naive as to swallow the bitter pills that have been prescribed. Jointly, Australia's words and deeds have contributed to hindering the process of East Asian economic integration, which is in the fundamental interests of Australia as well as the whole regional community.

Fortunately, China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed on a dual track solution to settle the disputes in the South China Sea and so calmed the unnecessary tensions. Once again, the Australia foreign Minister wastes no time in telling her ASEAN neighbors other stories. To be sure, the ASEAN people are sophisticated enough to understand who means what. This attempt at alienation is doomed to be another fiasco.

There is only one thing that can justify the Australian foreign minister's pride and prejudice (definitely not sense and sensibility). That is anxiety. Anxiety at a time of "change and uncertainties". She was calling on the US to stay in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, the US has never left.

The foreign minister's sensitivity to the existence of US in the region only testifies to how unstable the current regional architecture is.

The closely-knit economic network of the region calls for a comprehensive security framework to go with it. The incongruity between the production network and exclusive security network has put Australia on an ever simmering pot. In fact, many visionary thinkers in Australia have been calling for change. Yet, the Australian administration seems to have not heard these rational voices. The region has called for collective leadership to sail safely through the storms of anti-globalization, protectionism, distrust and mistrust. Yet, some Australian friends are lingering on the perception of single leadership and supremacy. Hence, the paranoia that a rising China may grab that leadership.

Alas. While China has freed herself of ideology in engaging friends internationally, our Australian friends are still struggling in the quagmire of the democracy versus non-democracy debate.

While China shows its openness and inclusiveness by regarding the US as a shared friend with Australia, Australian is trying to drive a wedge in that friendship.

While China is inviting Australia to seize the opportunity to expand cooperation to protect globalization and its supporting institutions, promote regional economic integration and comprehensive security, and stimulate even greater momentum in bilateral economic partnership, our Australian friend asks: "Are you a democracy?"

All these have proved it is high time to exchange views at a higher level. The much-needed annual regular Prime Ministerial meeting has been devised to solve the problem of the strategic questions of trust and cooperation, and peace and prosperity. This time, it is the turn of Australia to prove that the opportunity of this top-level design for bilateral relations is fruitful and worth the while and that the comprehensive strategic partnership is not just a matter of terminology.

The author is an associate research fellow with the China National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation.

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