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Australia should resist US pressure to take on China

Interview with The Global Times, 31 October 2018

Editor's Note: After more than several years of tensions, China-Australia ties have recently seen a trace of thaw. Does the administration of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was sworn in on August 24, have a different policy on China from his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull? What should be Australia's approach to developing ties with China? Global Times (GT) reporter Sun Xiaobo talked with Gareth Evans (Evans), chancellor of the Australian National University and former Australian foreign minister, on the sidelines of the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum held on October 24-26.

GT: Do you think the administration of Morrison has shown a different policy toward China from the previous one?

Evans: I think just as Turnbull, the previous prime minister, realized that the relationship (between Australia and China) badly needed a resetting, so too has Mr Morrison and he did make a speech quite recently to the Chinese Australian community, which made clear he understood the need to step back from the freeze period in our relationship. I think he said enough to make clear that Australia wants the relationship with China to be on a sound footing.

There's also a tendency with this government to be obsessively deferential to Washington and I do worry that with Washington now moving to a very aggressive, hostile, confrontational stance with China, there will be pressure on the Australian government to follow suit. I think that pressure should be resisted. There are plenty of issues that we have with China such as the South China Sea which we can talk about in a sensible and civilized fashion, but we should not be plunging into a new Cold War that is absolutely crazy. I don't want to see Australia go anywhere in that direction.

GT: Does the US-China trade tension concern you? Will it spread to other sectors?

Evans: Unless there is some modification in current US positions, and unless there is some willingness on China's part to move further down the reform and opening-up path, I do fear that the trade war will become hotter and hotter and the implication for everyone will become very bad. Not just for Australia, but countries everywhere. This will have a very depressing effect on global economy and on countries trading extensively with China.

This is the test of everyone's good sense. It's one thing to have a trade war and another to have a full-scale resumption of the Cold War with, in worst-case scenarios, a renewed military arms race, and even more worryingly, a nuclear arms race. This would be a terrible thing for the world to see. It's very important that cooler heads prevail. If the antagonism expressed by US Vice President Pence, following Defense and Nuclear Posture review earlier in the year, and in the context of the trade war exploding as well, it was not just for domestic political consumption - and does really signal where the US wants to go, to have a full-scale strategic competition and reversion to some of the real hostility in the past - that's very bad news for everyone. Certainly, I hope Australia and other US allies don't get on this path.

GT: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to China last week is a sign of thaw in bilateral relations. Will Japan's case apply to Australia?

Evans: It's very good to see Abe and President Xi Jinping finding common ground. It's long overdue to put the history wars to rest once and for all, and hope we'll never see a resumption of that antagonism. It's not a matter of Australia being guided by Japan or following Japan's example. I hope Australia will have the good sense to develop its own relationship with China and to get through, as I think we now largely have the difficult period of the last two years. My own view is that it's very important that we, Australia, develop a more multi-dimensional relationship with China, not just think of ourselves as one-dimensional economic partners, with security issues lurking in the background and causing potential difficulties. There are many areas in which Australia, China and many other countries can work together multilaterally which are not purely security or economic issues. I'm talking about climate change, peacekeeping and UN system, population movement and refugee issues.

I also think we can work together on arms control issues where Australia has long been, particularly under Labor governments, a very strong voice for nuclear disarmament. Australia could work very well with China as a leader in moving down the path of nuclear disarmament, rather than in the other direction, where a lot of contemporary dynamics are heading. It would be very bad for the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty to be torn up and for this Cold-War mentality to get a further foothold. The worst thing that could happen is that we move into something like nuclear arms race, not with Russia again, but with China. China in the past has been extremely cautious about going down the nuclear arms path and has adopted a clear policy of minimum deterrence, and commitment to No First Use. Beijing can be a real global leader in moving us toward a nuclear weapons free world.

What I'm saying more generally is that on these transnational, global and regional public goods issues, China has demonstrated a real willingness to be an active, engaged and responsible international player. And these are areas in which we can put aside other issues and work together because Australia has had a long tradition of being a creative and active middle power with major global contribution to make on these issues. That's an area of really productive potential relationship for us and China, and China and other countries. We just ought to get out of the zero-sum thinking, where it's all about economics versus security. Our overall approach should be one of strong support for the idea of cooperative security and common security: finding our security with others rather than against them.

GT: The Australian public seems to not have a positive attitude toward China. Turnbull has blamed the media and his political opponents for portraying the China-Australia relationship as troubled in June. Who do you think should get the blame?

Evans: It's absolutely not true that the Australian public is hostile toward China. There is some statistical evidence. The Lowy Institute poll this year found that 82 percent of Australians see China as "more of an economic partner" than a "military threat," and only 41 percent of Australians view foreign interference in our political process as a critical threat to Australia's vital interests. Most interestingly, more Australians trusted President Xi (43 percent) to do the right thing in global affairs than Donald Trump (30 percent). Australians don't see China as a threat despite all the controversy, and negative publicity about China in the last two years. We see it as a partner.

Media is the media, always with its own agenda and running stories that it thinks will appeal to particular constituencies. I don't think the media in either country accurately reflects the state of play. About 150, 000 Chinese students are in Australia. Chinese faces are everywhere in our cities. Australia is now demographically a Eurasian country.

Our two countries are bigger than media controversies and misstatements by senior political figures. We have a long history of working effectively together. Australia is one of the very first countries to recognize China in 1972 and I personally have been visiting China regularly ever since 1976 - over 40 years ago. There are issues over which we have differences such as the South China Sea, but we can work through those differences. They are not existential issues. Australians genuinely understand that China has a real leadership role in the world. It's just restoring its historical legitimacy after a couple of centuries of bad experiences and humiliation. This is a country finding its feet and its pride again. We also understand that when it comes to international institutions, we cannot expect China just to be a rule-taker. It will need to be a rule-maker, including in relation to the governance of international institutions. These are the legitimate areas where China can reasonably want to have its position respected.

The Belt and Road initiative doesn't particularly worry me. I do think there are issues about governance, transparency and genuine collaboration by the countries concerned. But overall it's a good thing. It's a perfect rational basis for good cooperation and good relationship in the future.

It's always an issue for Australia and other US partners that we get caught up with the demands of our alliance, but we are getting more and more willing to put that alliance in context and not to follow Washington in every step it chooses to take. Australia will make its own decisions. We are an independent country. China and Australia have a very good future.

GT: You said at Victoria University that "in international relations outlooks can be self-reinforcing". What kinds of outlooks should we have now amid the uncertainty worldwide?

Evans: It's important to emphasize the positive rather than negative, to always believe that if you work hard at it, relations can be good and productive and beneficial results can follow. If you are very pessimistic, if you believe that nothing you do will produce positive results, you won't even try to get good things done, like arms control, or sensible trade policy, or fixing the climate.

Optimism is not self-fulfilling. But it's very important not to be negative, for all the many things it is possible to be negative about. One of the things that I am positive about is that I don't really think there is much risk of the world plunging into another major war. We just have learned so much about the horror, misery and damage of a war, even taking nuclear weapons out of the equation. The nature of modern technology, the new potential for cyber war, and everything associated with modern war, guarantees destruction on a shocking scale. It's ridiculous to think that any country could get a net benefit out of going to war. So that makes me confident about the future. For all the confrontation and the anger we see, I don't think anyone would be crazy enough to deliberately initiate a major war.

GT: But do you think the US has learned the lesson?

Evans: The US has learned many lessons from Iraq, from the Libyan regime change and the chaos in Syria about the absolute need to adopt cooperative approach. I do think Americans have been learning. My favorite comment on all this is from Bill Clinton, which I heard him say at a private event in 2002: "America has two choices about the way in which we use the enormous economic and military power that we now have. Choice No.1 is to use it to try to stay top-dog on the global block in perpetuity. Choice No.2 is to create a world in which we'll be comfortable living when we are no longer top-dog on the global block." I think that latter sentiment was pitch perfect, and I only wish we could hear it now stated by US leaders. The only way the world can live in peace and prosperity is through cooperation, not conflict.

This interview was originally published in The Global Times