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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

No need to be concerned about hurting China's feelings

August 25, 2009


August 25, 2009

There is only one significant problem in the
present Australia-China relationship: the
incarceration in China of the Rio Tinto executive
and Australian citizen Stern Hu. All the other
apparent difficulties have been around, to a
greater or lesser extent, since Australia recognised China in 1972.

The relationship was never more friendly than in
1974, the mid-point of Gough Whitlam's Labor
government, which opened up relations between Australia and China.

Yet in 1974 Beijing kicked up a diplomatic row at
the ABC's decision to screen Michelangelo
Antonioni's documentary Chung Kuo, Cina. The
Italian film director was then a rare member of
the Western intelligentsia who objected to the
brutalities of Mao's Cultural Revolution. China
did its barking, but the film was shown and the diplomatic caravan moved on.

During his visit to China last month the West
Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, said: "China
is more important to Australia than Australia is
to China.'' It is understandable why a premier
would focus on the perceived needs of his or her
state, especially during a downturn. But
prevailing evidence suggests the two economies
are inter-dependent. China needs Australia and
Australia needs China. This should be the message
of the Gorgon agreement to export liquefied gas
exported from Western Australia to China.

The governments led by Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser
tended to fawn before China. Judging from his
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Lecture
last month, Paul Keating approves of such an
approach. But, during their time as prime
minister, both Bob Hawke and John Howard
experienced difficulties with the relationship.

Hawke vocally condemned the 1989 Tiananmen
massacre, and Howard met the Dalai Lama. Even so,
the diplomatic relationship during this time was
seldom less than cordial, while two-way trade accelerated.

Howard and Rudd have handled China differently
but with similar effect. Howard in effect junked
Australia's public concern about human rights
abuses in China. Never a sympathiser with the
Communist regime, he made his stance by referring
to the importance of Australia's relationship
with what he termed the two great democracies of
the Asia-Pacific - the US and Japan. However,
Howard met with the Dalai Lama in 2007 against
the express wishes of the Chinese leadership.

Rudd took a different tack by publicly expressing
concern about human rights in Tibet during his
address at Peking University last year where he
spoke in Mandarin. He also met the Dalai Lama two
years ago but said that he only discussed spiritual matters.

The Federal Government has granted visas to the
Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer. Judged by its
actions in government, it is most likely a
re-elected Howard government would have granted her one this year.

Yet last week the opposition spokeswoman on
foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, accused the
Government of bungling the handling of Kadeer's
visa, and Philip Ruddock described the granting of the visa as a mistake.

On Sky News on Sunday Bishop described this
year's white paper, Defending Australia, as a
"needless provocation to China". It is no such
thing, and broadly consistent with the Howard government's defence policy.

It is unclear why Bishop would want to be seen as
making excuses to Beijing for Australia's
essentially bipartisan defence and foreign
policies. In fact, her position to the defence
white paper is similar to the critique Keating expressed last month.

Bishop is but one of a number of prominent
Australians who seem to be unduly concerned about
the feelings of China's leaders. Chris Uhlmann is
one of the ABC's best interviewers, and his
appointment as The 7.30 Report's political editor
adds much-needed clout to this increasingly dull
program. Yet during his recent interview with the
visiting Chinese assistant foreign minister Liu
Jieyi, Uhlmann asked surprisingly soft questions
about a number of issues - including Hu's fate.
In private correspondence, Uhlmann has
acknowledged the validity of this criticism and
said that he is happy to have his regrets for
avoiding some hard questions recorded publicly.

Don Rothwell is the professor of international
law at the Australian National University and
appears frequently in the media as an advocate of
human rights. Soon after the Uhlmann/Liu
interview, Rothwell appeared on The World Today.
He in effect supported Lu's allegation that Hu
engaged in bribery while working for Rio Tinto in
China. Having made this assertion without the
benefit of any established evidence, Rothwell
went on to say that the Australian Federal Police
"may well be conducting independent inquiries
into the matter whether there is the potential
for a charge to be laid under Australian law against Stern Hu".

The federal police may, or may not, have
undertaken such an inquiry. Rothwell was in no
position to know this. But his interview, which
should never have gone to air without an
alternative view being heard, was damaging to Hu.
Especially since Rothwell's comment was picked up by other media outlets.

As the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, has
acknowledged, the Australia-China relationship is
going through some difficulties. No doubt they
will be resolved. In the meantime, Australia
should treat China the same way we treat nations
with whom we have good relations. This means not forgetting Stern Hu.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.
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