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China's behaviour isn't likely to improve any time soon

China is finally encountering some international pushback, basically because under Xi Jinping it has become too aggressive too quickly. Picture: Getty Images
China is finally encountering some international pushback, basically because under Xi Jinping it has become too aggressive too quickly. Picture: Getty Images

Get used to bad relations with China. This could easily go on for decades.

We have probably entered what will seem to be a permanent situation in our external affairs: our overwhelming problem is hostile, aggressive China; the next most important issue is how to get foreign help in standing up to it; and everything else that used to command our international attention, from Islamist militants in Syria to traffickers running the boat-people trade, is receding into the background.

Helpfully, we'll have company. China is well on its way to turning itself into the country that the world dislikes.

The practical result is that China is increasingly unlikely to buy any Australian export that it doesn't need, and the military threat to this country will rise.

Businesses will have to find new markets, as indeed they are already doing. That won't take long. But our money and diplomacy will probably be consumed for decades by the need to secure ourselves against China's armed forces and thwart its attempts to turn our neighbours into satellites.

Bad relations are likely to persist because, while Australia and other countries will not put up with Chinese wrongdoing, China can be expected to keep doing wrong.

As so many countries harden their attitudes to China, they are hardly likely to go back to the days when they would almost silently put up with, for example, Beijing's efforts at territorial expansion, exclusion of foreign products from its markets, theft of foreign intellectual property and inserting Huawei, an A-grade security risk, into the world's telecommunications networks.

If other countries won't soften attitudes to China, will it moderate its behaviour? Not soon. Pushing and shoving regardless of the conventions of international relations are its deeply ingrained habit. So is treating other countries as competitors, enemies or something in between.

China is used to getting away with bad behaviour, and smaller countries such as Australia are expected to comply with its wishes. Picture: Getty Images

China is used to getting away with bad behaviour, and smaller countries such as Australia are expected to comply with its wishes. Picture: Getty Images

Notice that China is almost friendless.

But it isn't Nazi Germany. It isn't bloodthirsty. And it doesn't believe in war for war's sake (though it is preparing for war to seize Taiwan, while almost certainly hoping to do so without firing a shot, by frightening the US into acquiescence).

However, China is confident of its growing power, is used to getting away with bad behaviour and, as former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has said, expects smaller countries, such as Australia, to comply with its wishes. That means it doesn't have much regard for any country except the US, and even in that case China shows signs of rising contempt.

China is finally encountering some international pushback, basically because under Xi Jinping it has become too aggressive too quickly. Actually, so far it has hardly seen proper resistance: as it keeps up its bad behaviour, the annoyance we see today in various countries will turn to anger, and the reaction will probably become stronger.

With China's competitive, us-versus-them view of the world, foreign retaliation for its wrongdoing is more likely to make it nastier than to bring it into line, at least for the immediate future.

So far, we've seen China respond to pressure with worse behaviour. Australia knows all about that, as China reacts to our forthright non-compliance with its wishes by trying to make an example of us to the rest of the world. [We're doing a globally important job by not caving in, showing everyone else that standing up to China is not so hard.]

But other countries have felt China's wrath, even when hardly going out of their way. When the Nobel Committee, which happens to be based in Oslo, awarded its annual peace prize to Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo in 2010, China blocked imports from Norway.

After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, responding with proper process to a US extradition request, detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018, China arrested two of Canada's citizens and blocked some of its agricultural exports. The implied message was: "To hell with your rule of law. She's Chinese. Hand her over."

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This incident is a chilling example of the sort of subservience China is comfortable trying to impose on other countries: even their domestic legal systems should suit Beijing. We might think about that the next time people say Australia needs to find ways of getting along with China. Just how low do they want us to go?

A cultural need to save face helps in driving China's relationships downhill. In the typical pattern, some bad behaviour causes foreign retaliation, to which China feels obliged to further react, even at its own expense.

So when Beijing's oppression in Xinjiang prompted EU countries this year to sanction Chinese officials, China would have been well advised to leave things rest, because it was trying to get an investment treaty with the EU. Instead it compulsively responded by sanctioning EU officials, prompting the European Parliament to drop consideration of the treaty.

The end result is that China has become unfriendlier towards EU countries, which in turn dislike China even more.

Many officials in Beijing must be aware of how much damage their country is doing to itself internationally, though they certainly do not see the situation as we do. From the point of view of any Beijing doves, China is just trying to look after its own interests, but perhaps should do so less aggressively. They probably advocate a return to its former, pre-Xi level of behaviour.

Their problem is that, even if they resume what they see as moderate behaviour, China under Xi has annoyed other countries so much and made them so sensitive to its roguishness that its old ways would still provoke resistance and reaction.

Indeed, they always should have - but in the old days too many countries were too focused on making money out of China and too willing to believe an academic fairy story that as it became richer it would become democratic and more internationally responsible. Australia was one of those countries.

  • Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
  • This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
This story China's behaviour isn't likely to improve any time soon first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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