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Sunday, 29 November 2020 04:48

China ties: time for some quiet diplomacy, or businesses will suffer

China ties: time for some quiet diplomacy, or businesses will suffer Pixabay

Naive. That is the word that comes to mind when one reads the musings of Australian journalists reacting to China's move to impose additional tariffs on Australian wine, just the latest reaction from Beijing to show Canberra that it can hurt the country's economy if it so wishes.

Did anyone seriously think that when China gained power it would act in a benevolent way? Indeed, when has any country that became powerful acted as some kind of cozy bear? Japan? Italy? Germany?

Australians, of all people, should understand this much better, seeing as cricket is the national game. In the days when Australia and England were the dominant powers in the sport, numerous decisions were made to favour themselves and their hanger-on, New Zealand.

When India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, became the dominant power in world cricket, it also wielded its clout in as crude a manner. And, often, there have been much more naked displays of power.

Despite all its protestations of innocence. Australia has done everything possible over the last few years to offend China. Most times, these acts can be traced to a push from the Americans. One can protest until one is blue in the face, but this has all been documented.

The way in which Australia treated telecommunications equipment vendor Huawei Technologies is a good example of the shoddy treatment meted out to entities from China. The company was banned from bidding for 5G contracts on alleged grounds of national security – though this just means "because the company is Chinese".

It has cost Australian telcos at least a few billions as they have had to turn to more expensive suppliers like Nokia and Ericsson, resulted in hundreds of Australians losing their jobs, and certainly done a great deal of harm to bilateral ties with Beijing.

Australia has been trading with China, apparently in the belief that one can do business with a country for yonks without expecting some sense of obligation to develop. The attitude has been that China needs Australian resources and the relationship needs to go no further than the transfer of sand dug out of Australia and sent to China.

Those in Beijing, obviously, haven’t seen the exchange this way. There has been an expectation that there would be some obligation for the relationship to go further than just the impersonal exchange of goods for money. Australia, in true colonial fashion, has expected China to know its place and keep its distance.

This is similar to the attitude the Americans took when they pushed for China’s admission to the World Trade Organisation: all they wanted was a means of getting rid of their manufacturing, so their industries could grow richer, and an understanding that China would agree to go along with the American diktat to change as needed to keep the US on top of the trading world.

But then you cannot invite a man into your house for a dinner party and insist that he eat only bread. Once inside, he is free to choose what he wants to consume. It looks like the Americans do not understand this simple rule.

Neither does Australia, it would appear. China now has real clout when it comes to world trade and has shown that it is prepared to use it. It is a pity that Australia still thinks that megaphone diplomacy can work with the Chinese.

Anyone who advocates a more nuanced approach to China is automatically tagged as a panda-hugger. Common sense is dismissed as bowing to authorianism. And don't forget those constant references to "communist China" which are passing strange given that China has _always_ been a communist country.

With the wine tariffs, China has clearly shown why it is acting in this way; as the Australian Financial Review points out: "And when it imposed crippling duties on Australian wine on Friday, as it had threatened, it even gave preferential treatment to one winery which was founded by Chinese entrepreneur Wei Li and of which former ambassador to China and sometimes Morrison government critic Geoff Raby is a brand ambassador. Australia Swan Vintage received a 107.1% impost. Everyone else received 160% or more."

People in Australia often point to John Howard as some kind of elder statesman, but anyone who looks at his time in power dispassionately would realise that he had the best chance in the last 30 years to cultivate industries that would reduce Australia's dependence on China – and did nothing.

Instead, Howard used all the excess money that came in during the boom years — and here we are talking nearly half a trillion Australian dollars — for handouts to the people in order that he could keep winning elections.

Alternative industries could have been built up given that Australians are quite innovative when it comes to thinking up ideas. Indeed, I wrote about one such company on Friday.

But that bus has now gone. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could have a quiet word with his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern, and find out how her country, which is even more dependent on China than Australia, manages to keep out of Beijing's firing line. But one doubts he has even thought of that option.

Businesses are now starting to complain: I saw the owner of one wine company protesting during an interview on the ABC on Friday after news of the wine tariffs broke.

All the whinging and complaining by journalists will not do any good; what is called for is quiet diplomacy. Morrison must weigh the fact that Australia needs China for its exports given the dependency web that has been built up over so many years. Lifestyles are at risk here and votes too. At least, that latter factor should make Scotty from Marketing sober up.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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