Australia`s `Russia` problem? It`s China
January-March 2018
By: Rory Medcalf

To reiterate, it is vital to remember that many Chinese-Australians are anxious about the role of the Chinese party-state inside Australia. They are also understandably worried about the harm the actions of a small number may do to the reputation of the Chinese diaspora in Australia, whether citizens, permanent residents or students.

So, the issue of foreign interference needs to be addressed in a context of respect for the rights of Chinese-Australians. This needs to be an issue that is seized and owned by the moderate, bipartisan center of Australian politics. This way, the issue cannot be captured by extreme voices or be distorted, misconstrued or falsely portrayed as one of xenophobia. The Chinese-Australian community makes an enormous contribution to Australia and is the nation’s greatest asset in engaging with China. Prominent voices in this community are leading the pushback against Chinese Communist Party orchestration of influence within the media, in politics, society and on university campuses.

In our conversations about how to respond to this interference, we need to be careful not to assume that the Chinese Communist Party is all-powerful. The risk is that we will buy the story that Australia’s economy is so comprehensively dependent on China that it cannot afford to cause China much difficulty on security and political issues, even when the interests of the two nations diverge.

Indeed, perceptions of Australia’s vulnerability to Chinese economic pressure are exaggerated. Economic pressure from China that would have the biggest impact on Australia, notably through the iron ore trade, would also impose restrictive costs on Beijing. Privately or publicly, Beijing criticizes or complains to Canberra frequently about multiple issues. But the accompanying threats tend to be implicit or general – that the bilateral relationship will suffer some unspecified deterioration if Australia does not heed China’s wishes.

Even where Canberra has seriously annoyed Beijing, such as by supporting legal rulings on the South China Sea, Beijing has not directed economic pressure specifically at Australia. Before Beijing resorts to serious economic measures, entailing costs to itself, it would likely take political steps such as cancelling diplomatic dialogues. If Beijing felt it needed to send an economic signal to reinforce its displeasure, its initial response would likely involve nontariff barriers on quarantine and safety standards, or making life difficult for businesses operating in China, with limited long-term economic impact on itself or Australia.

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