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On friendship with China

  • 30 April 2020
The COVID-19 world clearly needs to discover how to be in better relationship with China and its citizens. It seems like the era of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ has ended, given the heightened animosity towards China around the world due to the pandemic. 

China will continue to become the dominant global player, perhaps joined by the USA if it retreats from its new isolationism. However, outbursts from President Trump, obfuscations from President Xi, threats of economic boycotts from China’s Ambassador to Australia and the recent muddied messaging from Australian political figures show that widespread uncertainty exists as to how to shape the relationship.

There are several key points to note when talking about engagement with modern China.

One, China perceives official friendship as a diplomatic tool.

China’s leaders are very deliberate about engagement with foreigners. The government strategically pursues those who may be of assistance to it. Globally, united front organisations cultivate relationships through the language of friendship but also the peddling of influence through hefty donations. In Australia the case of Huang Xiangmo, property developer and national security risk, is a clear example of how multiple actors are at work for China’s national goal.

Two, when Chinese officials talk of friendship they are actually talking about power.


'It is clear therefore that the Chinese government’s sophisticated communications strategy makes it difficult to talk about its actions without falling into a schoolyard spat about who is China’s best friend this week. This deliberate ploy of diversion and control is to be avoided.'  

They will praise as ‘friends of China’ those who relay the official line (as for instance about the South China Sea) and use affective language to criticise those who call out China’s actions. In such cases the official line is that the ‘feelings of the Chinese people have been hurt.’ The expectation is that the offending party will then have to spend energy to repair the perceived harm, and is punished if it does not. As Australia’s recent experience of exports being left on Chinese docks shows and the more recent ‘threats of economic coercion’ by Ambassador Cheng Jingye indicate are a real tool at China’s disposal.

Three, expressions of national sentiment are as much about controlling dialogue within China as they are about managing international relationships.

The Chinese government needs its citizens’ support, and making one foreigner a foe and one a friend achieves this. When individuals like US Secretary of State Pompeo,