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The rift with China: a time for harmony



For those who remember the excesses of Cold War rhetoric and the spurious fears used to justify our ill-fated interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the current China bashing is déjà vu. It is also deeply troubling.

Main image:  Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers a keynote address during a luncheon at the Perth USAsia Centre on June 9, 2021 in Perth, Australia. Morrison gave the keynote address, ahead of the G7 Summit. (Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

Judging from comments made a few days ago by Kurt Campbell, Biden’s senior adviser on Indo-Pacific affairs, there is more of this to come. Describing China’s approach as ‘unyielding’, he saw little prospect of the Australia–China diplomatic freeze easing any time soon. The only consolation he could offer was the vague promise of continuing US support.

The souring of relations with Beijing dates back to the 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. In a major speech in March 2017, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared that China could not be trusted to resolve its disagreements in accordance with international law and rules because it was not a democracy. A few months later, Turnbull spoke of the dangers of ‘a coercive China’.

Since then Chinese actions in the South China Sea have been used to justify greater Australian participation in bilateral and multilateral military exercises, port visits, maritime surveillance operations and ship transits in the region.

In April of this year, Prime Minister Morrison stated that Australia’s objective was to build ‘a strategic balance that favours freedom’, leaving his audience in little doubt that freedom was codeword for the West generally and the United States in particular. Soon after came the intervention by Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo. Reminding his audience that this was the 70th year of Australia’s principal military alliance, he offered this chilling scenario:

‘In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat — sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer. . . We must search always for the chance for peace until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful, course — to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.’

Two days later Scott Morrison unveiled the $747 million spending package on four key training bases in the Northern Territory. Adding grist to the mill Peter Dutton declared Australia to be ‘already at war’ in the cyber world. For dramatic effect, he told the ADF that Australia was prepared for action.


'Achieving a workable, culturally sensitive partnership with China is no easy task.'


In all of this, there is more than meets the naked eye. The souring of relations with China is driven not just by prime ministers, foreign and defence ministers, or even by Cabinet. It is the product of converging interests with immense reach and influence.

The net result is a vastly expanded security establishment. It includes some of the more powerful government departments, the armed forces and an array of security and intelligence agencies, all in close contact with their American counterparts. It is actively supported by a range of conservative think tanks that see themselves as guardians of US military orthodoxy, the most influential media chains in Australia, and the growing defence industry.

The anti-China hysteria that now grips Australia has been carefully orchestrated. Investigations have been launched into alleged foreign interference. Classified reports have been leaked suggesting that the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to influence Australian politics at all levels. Rumours have spread that Chinese students in Australia are promoting the policies of the Chinese government, while Australian universities are accused of entering into compromising contracts with their Chinese partners.

In June 2018, sweeping national security legislation stiffened penalties for leaking classified information, broadened the definitions of existing crimes like espionage, and added 38 new crimes to the record. China, though not named, is the intended target.

In August 2018, it was announced that the Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, would be blocked from bidding to build Australia’s 5G network. In line with Washington’s wishes, national security concerns were used to justify the ban, as well as the blocking of takeovers by Chinese companies and the refusal to participate in China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Remarkably, little concrete evidence has been offered to support claims of rampant Chinese political interference. China, it is safe to assume, is trying to cultivate friendships and connections in Australia as elsewhere. But these efforts are but a pale imitation of what the United States has been doing for decades. The reach of its defence establishment, security agencies and other institutions within Australia is hardly denied and seldom questioned.

In retaliation, China has frozen diplomatic contact with Australian ministers, suspended the China–Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, and imposed a series of trade restrictions targeting primarily Australian shipments of beef, barley, coal, cotton and wine worth billions of dollars.

It is time to think anew. Australia must pursue a more prudent and ethically based set of options. Critically important is the need to arrest the present military build-up in the Indo-Pacific region and propose concrete tension reduction measures in the region.

To this end Australia has to act in concert with interested Asian and South Pacific neighbours and other like-minded governments. Collectively, such a grouping can impress on China the need and opportunities for collaborative action on several fronts.

Jointly with others, Australia can actively promote regional consultation and collaboration with China on climate change, the COVID pandemic, cyber security, organised crime, human trafficking and other transnational challenges to security. Over time, these efforts could pave the way for concrete steps towards the creation of a more effective regional security architecture.


'We need to engage in an ongoing conversation with China about fundamentals, about the key principles that should govern an effective international human rights regime.'


Achieving a workable, culturally sensitive partnership with China is no easy task. The human rights issue is especially challenging. Australia will wish to advance human rights throughout the region, but not as a stick to beat China with.

Nor is much to be gained from projecting Australia as a great human rights champion. Let’s not forget, our own record on First Nations rights, treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, restrictions on civil liberties, and support for the human rights of oppressed minorities in our neighbourhood is far from exemplary.

We need to approach the task with a healthy dose of humility. We need to engage in an ongoing conversation with China about fundamentals, about the key principles that should govern an effective international human rights regime.

We can do this in multiple international forums, in government-to-government dialogues, societal exchanges, and importantly through the educational and cultural institutions of the two countries.

While doing so, the Australian interlocutors need not be shy of acknowledging that political stability is a worthy objective for any society. But we can legitimately pose the question: is recourse to the iron fist, whether in the securitisation of life in Hong Kong, the re-education camps in Xinjiang or use of the death penalty, conducive to stability?

Rather than appeal to Western liberal values, we may achieve more by invoking the principle of harmony that lies at the heart of Confucian wisdom, which is now a prominent feature of contemporary Chinese discourse. Indeed, ‘harmony but not uniformity’ has become an important element of Xi Jinping thought. The harmony principle requires that we discard practices likely to foment resentment, grievance, hatred and violence. China in line with its own best instincts and Confucian heritage can maintain stability without doing violence to the dignity of the human person.

In short, we need to convey to our Chinese interlocutors, in words and deeds, the simple message that we oppose the trend towards authoritarianism not because it offers us an opportunity to wax lyrical about our superior liberal values, but because we believe that a China that is at peace with itself can more effectively assume a constructive leadership role on the world stage.



Joseph Camilleri

Joseph Camilleri is Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, and Managing Director of Alexandria Agenda, a new venture in ethical consulting offering services in diversity, education and governance. He was founding Director of the Centre for Dialogue 2006-2012, and has authored or edited some thirty major books and written over 120 book chapters and journal articles, covering issues of security, dialogue and conflict resolution, the role of religion and culture in society, multiculturalism in Australia, Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific region. He is presently associated with a major new initiative Conversation at the Crossroads.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers a keynote address during a luncheon at the Perth USAsia Centre on June 9, 2021 in Perth, Australia. Morrison gave the keynote address, ahead of the G7 Summit. (Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Joseph Camilleri, China, East Asia, Australia, US, international relations



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Existing comments

It all gets back to economics. The USA experiment with a dictator in the form of Donald Trump showed how important the military-industrial complex is to the survival of the US socio-political system. The military aspect requires an enemy. PRC fits the bill. Like US it built its economic success on a slave-like proletariat. It converted raw materials into cheap consumables. Big business in Western trading countries couldn't resist buying el cheapo goods for their subservient lower classes. Soon China had a huge army to control its own population. It built a nuclear arsenal to support its hegemony in Asia. This had to be stopped. Trump showed that the slogan "America First" meant every country had to be in second place. Biden still believes this but in muted tones. How can Australia deal harmoniously with China when our great & powerful friend insists on being Number One?

Uncle Pat | 15 July 2021  

Arriving in 1978 to take up a teaching appointment in Politics, your's was the first scholarly paper at a seminar hosted by Perth Newman College that I attended that resonated with the critically theoretised views that I had encountered in the UK. Even the Vice-Chancellors interviewing me expressed doctrinaire biases that would have been laughed at in Europe and North America. In spite of your enlightened delivery (on the topic of International Relations and the Peace Question) I recall your being harangued outside the College by pamphleteers alleging that Pax Christi, which you then co-ordinated in Melbourne, was a Communist-front organisation dedicated to undermining the security of Australia. While shifting to the Eastern States, where critical scholarship is more abundant as well as evident, it is sad to see that, so many years after Vietnam, the Right has re-emerged with a new anti-Chinese invective of its own. As someone interest in the crossroads of religion, politics and ethics. I commend you for emphasising the constant need over the longer term to keep hammering home the message of peace, justice and harmony in a world all to ready to analyse its mishaps in terms of the false binaries that you expose.

Michael Furtado | 15 July 2021  

Well written. It's time Australia showed China we're a nation with a spine. China suffered 25 years of being ostracized internationally after our Australian PM Bob Hawke delivered a theatrical, tearful speech quoting an Australian diplomatic cable he pulled from his pocket. Hot off the telex, honey. Our PM stated 10,000 Chinese students were crushed to pulp by China's PLA tanks to destroy evidence of a massacre. This was Australia's WOMD moment but we don't have the convenience of winning a war to justify false propaganda. Australian diplomats have known the event was misrepresented and the cable a perpetuated lie to Australia for years; how often was the anniversary of Tienanmin Square reminded to the Australian public or the world? How many times did you see the flag man facing a tank? The affair deserves a UN Commission to investigate the origin of the cable and subsequent secret cover up; an official apology from the PM to China would show that though we have allies we stand on our own to value honesty and justice. Then talk harmony...

ray | 15 July 2021  

It's nice to be reminded that we haven't all gone stupid.

Jim Jones | 15 July 2021  

This is such a fine article, and is so helpful in bringing the various intricate strands of history and current challenges together. Thank you Joseph. Australia's growing contempt for human rights is hardly the foundation for positive discourse with China, a point not lost on the Chinese leadership, but apparently on our own. China does have much to correct in itself, as do all nations. Were it not so serious, Australia's gung-ho approach to chiding China on human rights would be laughable, given our recent laws allowing indefinite detention of refugees, claiming that this will protect them from refoulement. The forked tongue is a human phenomenon, not restricted to the Chinese or anyone else.

Susan Connelly | 15 July 2021  

Joseph, I broadly agree with your commentary. I have good connections through family with the Philippines who are much closer to China then we are and at much greater risk from their military postures than we are. If the U.S. had foreign bases as close to their territory as China , we know from history how the U.S reacts. China is understandably concerned by the rhetoric coming from the United States and its little ally, Australia. China faced several centuries of humiliation under Western economic plundering, a situation they are not likely to forgive or forget. We would be well advised to tone it down and reconsider our relationship with the U.S. After a series of defeats in Vietnam , Iraq and now Afghanistan, it is time we reevaluated our military connections with the U.S. A conflict with China over Taiwan, which dragged us in as a U.S. ally would be a absolute disaster for this country.

Gavin O'Brien | 15 July 2021  

Wise article. When will we ever learn? The powerful US war machine and its sycophantic allies can't win a war even against a poor nation like Afghanistan. What the hell (and it will be hell) do these idiots think they're going to achieve with a war against China, whose industrial and military might is about to surpass the USA's and whose technology (including much of its military technology) already surpasses that of the ailing USA? China is on the rise, and the US is on the decline. This is a reality we have to live with, not die from.

Peter Schulz | 15 July 2021  

So, rather than Australia reacting to China’s “coercive diplomacy”, it’s really Australia’s fault, and China has simply “retaliated”? The Australian Strategic Policy Institute says China has used coercive tactics 152 times since 2010 (when it blocked salmon imports from Norway after the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo), and it has significantly increased these tactics since 2018, the year Xi became president for life. Interestingly, in 1976, Cambridge University Press published the book, “Civilization in Crisis: Human Prospects in a Changing World” by Joseph A. Camilleri. In praising Chinese agriculture under Mao, he writes, “The key to this success undoubtedly lies in the structural reconstruction initiated by the communist revolution.” No mention of the death toll of 45 million due to starvation and overwork, nor that Mao had said, “Half of China may well have to die.” And the Cultural Revolution was really “the utopian attempt to create the selfless and self-disciplined man.” In fact, it resulted from Mao’s reaction to a play by Wu Han, which he perceived was an attack on his agricultural policies. And so millions more were humiliated or murdered. You can’t see clearly with a plank in your own eye.

Ross Howard | 16 July 2021  

Re Australia and China, I am reminded of the Edward Lear limerick about the Lady of Riga who went for a ride on a tiger, ending up with a very large smile on the face of the tiger and no Lady of Riga. Remember Tibet and the Uighurs? Look at the Chinese mining ventures in Africa, where African workers are treated far worse than under the former white regimes. Academics are sometimes the worst advising on future foreign policy. This article fits neatly into that bin.

Edward Fido | 18 July 2021  

Joe, I guess Ross Howard and Edward Fido know more about this than Cambridge University Press. Silly us?

Michael Furtado | 18 July 2021  

Joseph China is adept at the counter narrative and live on a diet of denial. (until its too late to do anything about it.) For example consider Tibet. Tibet was invaded by Communist China in 1949. Since that time, over 1.2 million, or 1 out of 6 Tibetans have been killed, over 6000 monasteries have been destroyed, and thousands of Tibetans have been imprisoned. 2. In Tibet today, there is no freedom of speech, religion, or press and arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents continue. 3. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's political and spiritual leader, fled to India in 1959. He now lives among over 100,000 other Tibetan refugees and their government in exile. 4. Forced abortion, sterilization of Tibetan women and the transfer of low income Chinese citizens threaten the survival of Tibet's unique culture. In some Tibetan provinces, Chinese settlers now outnumber Tibetans 7 to 1. 5. Within China itself, massive human rights abuses continue. It is estimated that there up to twenty million Chinese citizens working in prison camps. 6. Most of the Tibetan plateau lies above 14,000 feet. Tibet is the source of five of Asia's greatest rivers, which over 2 billion people depend upon. Since 1959, the Chinese government estimates that they have removed over $54 billion worth of timber. Over 80% of their forests have been destroyed, and large amounts nuclear and toxic waste have been disposed of in Tibet. source: https://www.umass.edu/rso/fretibet/education.html 7. Despite these facts and figures, the US government and US corporations, especially Blackrock, continue to support China economically. China makes no distinction between SOEs and privately held companies like Alibaba. These are critical issues of political and religious freedom and human rights which I take note MF takes no heed of. Also Hunter Biden is listed as a director of BHR Equity Investment Fund Management, whose indirect shareholders include the government-controlled Bank of China, the South China Morning Post reported. He paid about $420,000 for a 10% stake in October 2017. Source the New York Times. Now there are 4 high speed trains a day to the Autonomous Region (Tibet) and Tibet has become a dumping ground for China's poor.

Francis Armstrong | 19 July 2021  

Sorry, Michael, there is a person called Cambridge University Press who knows a lot about China? Was he/she at Peterhouse? I can't recall meeting him/her but my visit was brief. ROFL.

Edward Fido | 20 July 2021  

I am soberingly aware of Francis Armstrong's litany of Human Rights abuses by China. These should never be forgotten and employed as an excuse to justify the kind of dutch auction on human rights questions that accompanies the abuse of power everywhere and painfully without regard to precisely the kind of questions about culprit identification that so absorbs Francis that, like Mr Gradgrind, his inimitable grenade-lobbing style invariably misses out on what is to be done about it. Every court has its prosecutor and defense lawyer, but at the end of the day it is surely the decision of the judge and jury that matters. Since I hope that our readers, like me, would instinctively know of no more controversial an issue to divide global public opinion, the more critical question here is what is to be done about it. In his admirable commitment in every single issue to surface on this platform is to splatter these pages with evidence of the most egregious wrongdoing (the most immobilising reaction to this from the powerful also being 'So what!') one has to open up pathways to just resolution that are harder than needle-sifting in a haystack. What is Frankie's suggestion here?

Michael Furtado | 21 July 2021  

Edward, always a pleasure to address your interesting point. My reflection is: my having twice submitted, upon invitation, a manuscript to Cambridge University Press for publication and failed, I know from sobering experience the exacting standards they apply to publishing books of the highest academic quality, which in everyday parlance applies to tests of research scholarship that are vigorously applied by up to three reviewers BEFORE publication. That such volumes are invited from acclaimed scholars, rather than simply submitted, offers an additional insight as well as a guarantee as to the veracity of the information and arguments printed therein. How or where Peterhouse fits into this equation I simply don't know, though I would be certain, from a cousin, Julius Lipner, who is a Fellow at St Edmund's College (not as illustrious as Peter's) that, inevitably, there would be published illuminati throughout Cambridge who expend considerable scholarly effort reviewing CUP books. If this sounds 'so-whatish', let me point to an appeal by Francis Armstrong to the South China Morning Post, which is a Hong Kong-based newspaper owned by the Alibaba Group: a consortium that Armstrong should know both connives with AND opposes China, thereby highlighting the complexity of the issue.

Michael Furtado | 21 July 2021  

MF, my suggestion is to invite the USA to build a joint Aus US base in the Antarctic to monitor their 6 or 7 bases in our territory so they cant weaponize that territory. To slap 20 bn of our own tariffs on Chinese imports. To treat the cut in diplomatic ties as a cold war. To refuse their students entry while they brutalize Hong Kong. To nationalize the 6 Australian ports they have acquired. To rip up their 6km military style runways in Tasmania and Karratha. To make the FIRB do their job properly and closely vet any business and mine sales. To nationalize any ownership they have of water resources esp. Cubbie (26 water rights which is the major reason the Darling is dry). To not believe anything they say while the diplomatic relationship is in the deep freeze. Obviously there's nothing Australia can do to tip them out of Tibet but we need our politicians to wake up to their tactics (eg the way they took over Bellamy here). To stop their flotilla of trawlers fishing the Gulf under a flag of convenience. And if I were you I wouldn't sneeringly condescend to sweep these social issues aside with a lofty shake of the head and be to be mindful of the thought in debate, familiarity breeds contempt.

Francis Armstrong | 23 July 2021  

Thank you Joe. This is a great article about the hypocrisy our leaders have taken on China As Susan Connelly says, there is much to find fault with on the human rights front in China. However the Morrison's Government efforts to make the West and the US look s if they are the only virtuous nations has to be seen for what it is and it is hypocritical and dishonest propaganda. The leaders of the US and its allies - including our own - claim that the US is a beacon of democracy in the world despite the mountain of evidence that clearly shows this to be untrue And they never criticise the US for its actions in initiating wars or bringing about undemocratic changes of governments in other countries. Nor do they criticise the crimes committed by the US client states when they occur – eg those committed by Indonesia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc. Further, they seek to cover up the crimes or act as apologists for the regimes when these crimes are committed. In his book "he Jakarta Method – Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World", US scholar and journalist (Public Affairs NY) 2020, Vincent Bevins describes how the US used the same type of mass murder and intimidation program as it did during the 1965 CIA/Indonesian military coup to bring about regime change in 22 other nations.  In each case, the new governments were usually very repressive, undemocratic and did the bidding of US administrations and corporations even when this was not in the interests of the ordinary people. Australian leaders are not entitled to take the high moral ground while they just do the bidding of US policies and act as apologists for the crimes committed by the US and its client states.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 25 July 2021  

CUP has extremely high standards, Michael. They can afford to. They are in the same league as OUP; Harvard UP; UC-Berkeley Press et sim. MUP, the press of my alma mater, way down the Yarra in Victoria is Fourth Division. Hereford United to their Chelsea. You write in Sociology or another of the Dismal New Sciences, don't you? They'd have people from everywhere submitting manuscipts. Few would make it over the line. You need to be known, possibly a Fellow of Trinity (Cambridge).

Edward Fido | 28 July 2021  

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