The Chinese Consul General in Sydney, Gu Xiaojie, called at his request on AIIA NSW President and councillors at Glover Cottages on Tuesday 28 November. The free-ranging discussion covered the October Peoples’ Congress, the Australian Foreign Affairs White Paper, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Presidents Trump’s visit to Beijing, North Korea, and nuclear disarmament.
Gu confirmed President Trump’s October visit to Beijing had gone very well. Xi Jing-ping had underlined its importance with unprecedented formalities. Basic understandings were reached, but Gu offered no details. Meanwhile, China had not been invited to recent APEC or ASEAN discussions on the future of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but might consider joining if invited in the fullness of time. China was curious to see if President Trump might re-think his rejection of the TPP before deciding on its own course.
Meanwhile China was getting on with its own blueprint of trade partnerships as comprehensively outlined at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017. Gu characterised China’s strategy as a new ‘Long March’. It involved three principles and five ‘connectivities’. The principles involved intense discussion between China and individual countries, and discussion at multilateral forums. Bilateral partnerships were key. The ‘connectivities’ were infrastructure, finance, trade, people-to-people dialogue and politics.
Concerning China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), we noted recent reports that infrastructure projects were not entirely popular in some countries bordering the Indian Ocean because China brought in its own labour, depriving locals of jobs. Gu disputed this. At one stage during intense infrastructural projects in Africa, yes, Chinese labour had been involved. Not now. China contributed engineers and site managers, but not labour, which was almost invariably local. The same applied in Australia, he said. For example, the Chinese company Austar owned the Yancol coal mine near Cessnock, but apart from nine site managers, all workers at the mine were Australian.
We discussed the present situation in North Korea. Western allies of the United States, including Australia, continued to believe that China could ‘do more’ to bring North Korea to heel. Gu said China was fully respecting international sanctions approved by the UN, but not those imposed unilaterally. China did not wish to see the North Korean regime collapse, and would continue to try to influence Pyongyang away from its nuclear weapons path. China backed the existing non-proliferation regime, but not international attempts to make all nukes illegal, as recently sought by 122 members of the UN. More time and consideration was needed, and existing non-proliferation protocols and treaties had to be respected. We observed that Canberra took a similar position, along with all five permanent members of the Security Council.
On disputes over islands in the South China Sea, Gu pointed out that this was a matter for the contestant states to solve, not outsiders like Australia. And China’s approach of dealing with contestants on a one-on-one basis was bearing satisfactory results: look at the detente between President Duterte of the Philippines and Beijing. Our response was that Australia was not a disputant, but as much of our trade went through the Sea, and because of our very close regional trading partnerships, including of course with China itself, we had completely legitimate reasons for closely following the dispute settlement process. Gu did not contest this.
Concerning the Australian White Paper on Foreign Policy, we observed that it appeared to be accepting that the dynamics of regional relations in the Indo-Pacific region were changing. China’s rise both economically and politically were being acknowledged. Although not spelt out, It could even be suggested that perhaps Canberra’s next step might at some stage be to contemplate acknowledging that the United States may not continue to be the sole arbiter of a rules-based system, or even of what the rules should be. Gu nodded and smiled, but made no concrete response.
Report prepared by Richard Broinowski