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Turnbull and China

Malcolm Turnbull’s long-anticipated ascension to Prime Minister has roused renewed optimism in both domestic and foreign policy spheres. There is no denying that Turnbull comes bearing a sense of vision and competence more elegant than that of his recent predecessors. Most promisingly, Turnbull’s views on China’s rise, and the implications for Australia, are distinct from the well-rehearsed set of assumptions typically espoused by Australia’s politicians.

Since 2007, the Australian Prime Minister’s approach to our relationship with China has been a key determinant of his or her foreign policy legacy.

The aggrandised expectations for Australia-China relations, cradled in Mandarin speaker Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, were swiftly vanquished with Rudd’s faux pas in frankly addressing China as a “long-standing friend” in front of a Peking University audience on the issue of human rights abuses in Tibet.

Gillard offered no pretenses in her understanding of China. She maintained the tenor of constructive engagement by focusing on economic diplomacy, but she will also be remembered for brokering the Australia-China Strategic Partnership in 2013.

On Beijing’s strategic rise, Tony Abbott’s conviction was to project strength. “China doesn’t respect weakness”, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop asserted in 2014, firmly believing that Australian displays of strength would not lead to economic fallout as the previous Labor Government had assumed. The Abbott Government made a habit of denouncing China’s behaviour in territorial disputes, often through championing liberal values and alluding to engaging in military contingencies against China.

As a Western conservative politician, Turnbull displays the rare ability to sympathise with the case that China’s historical grievances directly inform their foreign policy output. Following Abbott’s clumsy comments praising Japanese soldiers during WWII, Turnbull singled out the integral role China played during the war, suggesting that, “we should never forget that China’s war against Japan was not just their war, but our war too and without China we may not have won it at all.”

In a 2011 speech to the London School of Economics, Turnbull argued that it made "no sense for America, or its allies, to base long-term strategic policy on the contentious proposition that we are on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China." He disputes China’s will to instigate conflict, claiming that, "China has more to lose than most from any conflict that disrupts global economic flows."

Turnbull believes in a multipolar Asia. He dismisses the hypothesis that China aims to assert its own Monroe Doctrine in a contest with the US for regional hegemony. He argues that as host to the four largest economies, the Asia-Pacific contains more than simply two major players.

More recently on ABC’s 7.30 Report, however, Turnbull labelled China’s South China Sea policy as “counterproductive.” He appraised soberly that, “pushing the envelope in the South China Sea has had exactly the reverse consequence” to Beijing’s strategic interests of reduced US military presence in the region.

Nevertheless, a meaningful China policy for Turnbull translates to focusing on the economic opportunities afforded by China’s rise instead of dwelling upon the potential strategic challenges.

Turnbull has optimistically deemed China as “perhaps the biggest single part of” the “most exciting creative, disruptive time in human history” and he believes “the shift of the Chinese leadership to focus on the ‘qualitative’ features of its economy presents a huge opportunity for Australian businesses.” Here, Turnbull refers to navigating the opportunities afforded by the rebalancing of the Chinese economy. These include the shift from export to consumption-led growth, increases in the service sector’s share of total output, increases in scientific innovation, healthcare expansion to support the ageing population, and environmental regulation reform. Each of these sectors bears enormous opportunities for Australian exports and services.

A wealth of experience in international finance deepens his nuanced understanding of the region’s broader economic dynamics. At a speech to the Australia-US Dialogue in January 2015, Turnbull recognised, “the rebooting of India, economic rebalancing in China, structural reform in Japan” as “vitally important issues for the Asia-Pacific.” Strikingly, he believes, “the effectiveness of the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] will be considerably enhanced by the inclusion of China”, whose “constructive participation” in regional groupings would serve to reinforce its peaceful rise.

As for ChAFTA, Turnbull has labelled it “one of the most important foundations of our prosperity”. He believes it will provide an “historical foundation for the next phase of Australia’s economic relationship with China.”

There is no question that Turnbull possesses the ability to enrich Australia’s transactional relationship with China. Let’s hope, however, that his nuanced Sino-appreciation extends to a more innovative chapter in Sino-Australia relations.

Luckily, Turnbull is already off to a good start. Chinese state media reacted to the leadership change with overwhelming optimism, even appointing him the nickname of ‘tang bao’ – a rough translation of his surname, meaning ‘sweet dumpling.’ Xinhua news agency claimed “not since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has Australia – or indeed the world – had a leader with such a strong Chinese affiliation and understanding as Turnbull.”

Sophie Qin is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: Veni (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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