research / Research reports

Do the claims stack up? Australia talks China

October 29 2018

When Australia talks about China, the China Opportunity and the China Challenge forms part of the discourse. The China Opportunity reflects the enormous economic benefits that Australia already derives from its $184 billion trade relationship with China, along with the potential for this to grow even further as 850 million more Chinese reach middle class status by 2030, placing Australian beef, wine, education and tourism within their grasp. Strands of China’s foreign policy also favour an approach of multilateral engagement in line with the preferences of the Australian government. The China Challenge reflects the reality that as China has risen in wealth and power, some of its behaviour has conflicted with Australia’s interests. A case in point was China’s decision in 2016 to reject the verdict of an international arbitral tribunal that had ruled its actions in the South China Sea contrary to international law. As a middle power, Australia’s interests are served by supporting an international system where disputes are resolved through rules rather than might.

Both the China Opportunity and the China Challenge discourses are grounded in facts and evidence. However, in recent years, some Australian scholars and policy practitioners have warned that the China Challenge can easily pivot to become a discourse of China Threat, China Angst and China Panic. This way of talking about China sees claims and assertions separated from an evidence base.

Some claims are completely bereft of an evidence base, such as those suggesting that China is positioning itself to make a territorial claim over Australia. Others, such as assertions that ‘Chinese political donations’ represent a Chinese government attempt to undermine Australian sovereignty, are linked to concerns raised by security agencies. But the evidence base also shows that such concerns relate to just two donors. And one is not Chinese; he has been an Australian citizen for the past 20 years. The other has recently been approved by the Australian government to continue to permanently reside in Australia and expand his already extensive business operations. There are more than 300 companies in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Australia, none of which have been reported to have made any political donations. The facts also reveal that foreign donations – not just Chinese – accounted for only 2.6 percent of total political donations in the last federal election campaign. Further, there is no evidence that Chinese donations have had an impact on government or opposition party polices on issues of interest to Beijing.

This report documents and dissects claims of:

- allegiance of Australia’s Chinese diaspora to a foreign power;
- aggressive behaviour by Chinese students at Australian universities;
- China’s intention to place a military base on Australia’s doorstep;
- spying at an Australian maritime port made possible by Chinese investment; and
- a Free Trade Agreement that favours Chinese, not Australian interests.

In each case, the evidence base is shown to be divorced from the claims found in headlines, news reports and opinion pieces, revealing just how widespread has become the discourse of China Threat, China Angst and China Panic.

If this were to become a habit in the way that Australia talks – and thinks – about China it might sabotage the calm and reasoned response that the China Challenge demands. At the same time, it could provoke policy responses that make it harder for Australia to capitalise on the benefits offered by China’s economic rise, as represented by the China Opportunity. For this reason the discourse of China Threat, China Angst and China Panic deserves to be thoroughly analysed. Australia’s national interest demands nothing less.

Author: Professor James Laurenceson is Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney. He has previously held appointments at the University of Queensland (Australia), Shandong University (China) and Shimonoseki City University (Japan). He was President of the Chinese Economics Society of Australia from 2012-2014. His academic research has been published in leading scholarly journals including China Economic Review and China Economic Journal. Professor Laurenceson also provides regular commentary on contemporary developments in China’s economy and the Australia-China economic and broader relationship. His analysis has appeared in the Australian Financial Review, The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, South China Morning Post and China Daily, amongst others.

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