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China's rise major challenge for Australia, expert warns

Published 26 Jul 2021
Rebekah Thornton
Ted O’Brien Federal Member for Fairfax

China’s rise is creating an unprecedented set of challenges for Australia and our response will influence the prosperity of future generations, a leading China expert has warned.
Ted O’Brien, the LNP Federal Member for Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast, spelt out these challenges recently while addressing a recent event hosted by AIIA Queensland in the Brisbane CBD.
Mr O’Brien, pictured above, is arguably the Morrison Government’s leading expert on China and currently serves on the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
In his presentation, Mr O’Brien provided a brief history of China’s external relations, explaining that its modern foreign policy is an outward expression of the country’s social values, people, and beliefs. The Chinese leadership believes that their past predicts the future and has a national goal of “great rejuvenation’’ in which the nation becomes a leading international power. He stressed that Australia must recognise this to gain a better understanding of China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been consolidating his authority, though Mr O’Brien cautions against overstating his influence. The highest-ranking official in China since 2012, Mr Xi has introduced a social and political model that seeks to replace liberal values with communist ideology. Mr O’Brien says that this model also influences the way in which Chinese Communist Party spokespeople feel obliged to respond when under pressure. He argues they exhibit a “patriotic fervour’’ that the ruling party has sought to engender. Despite this, Mr O’Brien argues that the eroding relevance of communism has had negative consequences on the power of the CCP. In Australia’s case, our status as the “most successful multicultural liberal democracy”, means our values will not be influenced by opposing forces.
As Australia’s largest trading partner, China plays a significant role in our economy. Multiple export industries, including coal, wine, and barley, have faced trade restrictions in the past year as Beijing attempts to punish Canberra over a range of issues. These include the decision to ban telecom giant Huawei from Australia’s 5G network and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for an independent investigation of the origins of COVID-19.

While most exports to China remain solid, Australia has navigated the trade restrictions by substituting supply to China with trade with other countries. This has arguably placed Australia in a better economic position, discontinuing an over-reliance from the international source in question. Mr O’Brien argues that despite Beijing’s efforts, we should not accept China’s reframing of us, stating they are effectively attempting to “bully a smaller power”.
While the master narrative that China has employed works best on its home ground, they have begun interweaving this into its foreign relations. Mr O’Brien argues that Beijing uses this narrative to justify coercive behaviour to “teach Australia a lesson’’. He says that we must find new ways to work with like-minded nations to combat the actions of China. Through working with other liberal democracies, Australia will maintain its dependable foreign standing and values.
Mr O’Brien asserts that the concept of “Team Australia’’ is the most important factor moving forward. He adds that “China does not speak for our 1.2 million Chinese-Australians’’, and that we must come together as a country to support one another during this period of instability. He emphasises that we need to engage in a straight-talking, forward, and honest manner and adopt a united foreign strategy which reflects the values of “Team Australia’’.
Mr O’Brien believes Australia will continue to carefully manage its relationship with China and other foreign nations to maintain its position as a democratic society. Despite the growing challenges, he remains confident that Australia will successfully manage its foreign operations and interactions moving forward.