Politics Opinion

Labor could be key to a better relationship with China

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Anthony Albanese could mend the damage done to our relationship with China by the Morrison Government (Image by Dan Jensen)

A change in government could be instrumental in repairing the damaged relationship with China caused by the Coalition, writes Laurie Patton.

LABOR IS THE IDEAL PARTY to restore a balanced relationship with China — a critical element in our post-COVID recovery strategy. And it’s a longstanding relationship forged by Labor that needs to be leveraged in the process.

Fifty years ago, at the same time that the Americans recognised the pointlessness of ignoring the world’s fastest-growing economy, Gough Whitlam travelled to Peking, as it was still known in the West. His historic visit was soon followed by NSW Premier Neville Wran. Australia was thus one of the first countries to formally recognise the People's Republic of China and to begin a long and beneficial trading relationship.

Years after Wran retired from politics, he chaired – and I ran – an I.T. investment company with a joint venture based in Shanghai. We also had a JV in the United States and they were commercially related. One of the most memorable experiences of my corporate life was accompanying my chairman to China. On day one, we did a factory tour on the outskirts of Shanghai. As we were driven up a long driveway we passed under a huge banner. It read: ‘Welcome Premier Wran.’

China was one of the first big trading nations, of course. It invented a form of what we call mateship, but they call “Guanxi” — the combining of long term friendship with business. China has also long understood the value of corporate memory.

So, when future Prime Minister Anthony Albanese begins to restore the damage done by the Coalition’s reprise of its “reds under the bed” hysteria, he will be walking in the footsteps of Whitlam and Wran.

China is looking to change the geopolitical landscape. Despite the Coalition’s alarmist Election-inspired rhetoric, it has never shown any substantive signs of wanting to harm Australia — quite the contrary, in fact. There’s no proof we will be disadvantaged, provided the Government is not deliberately inflammatory.

On ABC Insiders, the entire panel rejected the proposition Labor was soft on China. Former Coalition advisor Niki Savva said there was no evidence Labor was “China’s preferred candidate” — also pointing out internal Liberal Party focus group research had found a backlash against their Labor-China scare campaign.

Host David Speers noted that the current U.S. Government probably preferred Labor. Financial Review columnist Jennifer Hewett argued Labor in government would not act differently to the Coalition.

There’s no reason why Australia and China cannot continue to enjoy a very constructive relationship.

Thousands of young Chinese influencers have returned to the mainland after studying at our universities, developing warm and positive relationships with Australia and Australians.

Myriad small, medium and large businesses trade with China, buying goods for sale here. For as long as coal continues to be a marketable commodity, China will be a significant customer. Chinese auto manufacturer BYD, described as ‘the biggest car company in the world that you’ve probably never heard of’ by The Australian, is about to start selling very affordable electronic vehicles here.

Some of our most successful entrepreneurs – think of Kerry Stokes and Andrew Forrest – have done business in China for years. They, and others, have publicly (and no doubt privately) rebuked the current Government for unnecessarily risking our relationship with such an important business partner.

Last week saw an unprecedented entry into the public arena by our current and past top security service chiefs. In addition to these high profile interventions, others more circumspect are privately adding their concerns at what is seen in diplomatic circles as an unwelcome injection by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of raw domestic politics into the subtle business of international diplomacy.

Our long-standing alliance with the U.S. underpins our place in a global society, as it has done for the last century. It is our most important defence bulwark in an always complex and troubled international landscape. However, loyalty to the ANZUS Alliance has never restricted our ability to coexist with – and trade with – China or any other country with which the U.S. has had a tense relationship from time to time.

“Realpolitik” will hopefully ensure that China and America never cross the line into open military conflict. However, as China further grows in economic strength, it will continue to challenge existing structures of international power and influence. For Australia, our future independence and economic prosperity will require the ability to find a viable, balanced, place in the new order in the Asia-Pacific.

Simultaneously maintaining productive relationships with the two major world powers will test the strengths and weaknesses of the next federal government.

China has a long memory. So, in years to come, will it remember Australia as a country among the first to embrace its emergence from the isolation of the Cultural Revolution? Or will it react adversely to the rabid rantings of a Prime Minister desperately clinging to the trappings of power and looking for a political wedge?

Laurie Patton is a former journalist and executive in charge of news and current affairs at the Seven Network. He is also a former CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia.

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