None of this means ignoring sensitive subjects, or holding back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values. My mantra as Australian foreign minister, when it came to making representations on these issues, had three dimensions. Obviously do anything likely to be productive – for ethnic minorities under siege, detained dissidents, prisoners on death row or the like; less obviously but not unimportantly, do not shirk from doing that which is manifestly unproductive, but at least valuable in making the point in question, and encouraging others internationally to build like pressure; but avoid at all costs doing that which is counter-productive, making things worse for those one is trying to help, which is very often the case when the public megaphone rather than private voice is employed.
The second need, in navigating present and likely future tensions, is to see China’s present international assertiveness in its historical context, and read its intentions and respond to its provocations accordingly. Much of China’s behavior is no more than what can and should be expected of a dramatically economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower wanting to flap its wings and reassert its historical greatness after more than a century of wounded pride – certainly wanting to buy strategic space for itself, certainly wanting the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and certainly wanting an influence in global policy-making consonant with its new strength.
While Beijing would unquestionably like to play the role of regional hegemon, and will push every available envelope of influence as far as it can within our region and beyond, it seems inconceivable that (with the possible exception of Taiwan) it could ever judge that the benefits of outright military aggression outweighed the costs. Of course every country has to premise its defence policy on potential adversaries’ capability, not present intent. In Australia’s case, as our confidence in US alliance protection declines, so must our self-reliance increase. But the notion that China is hell-bent on military conquest is for the indefinitely foreseeable future wholly misconceived.
The third requirement, when a relationship is under the kind of strain Australia’s has been with China, is for diplomacy to focus hard on potential shared interests, issues that can unite rather than further divide. In Australia’s case, one of the most productive ways of building new content – not just economic – into our presently very one-dimensional relationship is to play both on remains of our own longstanding reputation as a good international citizen, committed to finding effective multilateral solutions to global and regional public goods issues, and China's desire to project soft power.
Beijing's efforts to improve its image have often been clumsy, and occasionally counterproductive, but in areas like international cooperation on climate, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, arms control and – dare I say it – for the most part in response to pandemics (notably Ebola), it has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised. Some will of course say that Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and his rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, has been just cynical opportunism. But the options should be explored. Nothing is more important for our future safety and sanity than that we live in a region, and world, focused not on confrontation but cooperation. And focusing on those problems which concern us all, and are incapable of resolution except through international cooperation, does offer an escape route from the kind of mess Australia’s relations with China have become in recent times, and that many others will want to avoid.