Politicians need to follow Turnbull’s lead on China

Australian politicians need to understand there’s more to China than a multi-billion-dollar trade relationship and assertive foreign policy, but Malcolm Turnbull is the exception to the rule.

When Australian politicians talk about China, it is either about the $150 billion-plus a year trade relationship or the potential threat of China as the country adopts a more assertive foreign policy. The quality of discussion is rather primitive here when compared with the ongoing debate in places such as the US.

It is impossible to talk about China or understand it without a real appreciation of the country’s history and especially its turbulent modern history. When Australian politicians talk about China’s recent past, it often turns into mini-disasters.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarks about the “skills and honour” of Japanese soldiers during the World War II stirred up deep emotions in China, which suffered the most from the brutal Japanese invasion. Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd’s lecture on Tibet also went down badly.

However, there is one senior politician in Australia who thinks deeply and talks intelligently about China and shows a firm grasp of the country’s modern history. His name is Malcolm Turnbull.

The depth of Turnbull’s insights and knowledge was on full display last Friday at the Australia China Business Forum. He delivered the keynote speech titled “More than a mine, more than a market -- history, empathy, economics in the China relationship.” 

Turnbull reminded the audience that China was a vital ally of the West during World War II and he went as far as to argue that China saved the day for Australia. “Had China been defeated and become a collaborating puppet state, like Vichy, France, not only would Japan have been able to fling vastly greater resources into the war against Australia, but it would have been able to invade Siberia in 1942, as Hitler asked,” he says.

“We may not have succeeded in resisting Japanese aggression without the tenacious heroism of our Chinese ally. “The central role of China as our ally in the Second World War is barely remembered in Australia today. But it will never be forgotten in China.”

Turnbull’s speech is not starry-eyed historical revisionism. The central tenet of his argument is supported by the latest historical scholarship. One of Britain’s most prominent China historians Rana Mitter, a professor of history at Oxford, just published a book called Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945.

Just imagine for a moment, if Abbott had delivered Turnbull’s speech in Beijing during his recent visit. It would have been a diplomatic triumph for Australia; how could the Chinese not appreciate a Western leader’s empathetic understanding of the country’s darkest chapter?

Turnbull’s empathetic understanding of China is influenced by Henry Kissinger’s masterpiece On China. The former US secretary of state, who played a vital role in re-establishing a diplomatic relationship with Beijing, believes China is so focused on maintaining economic growth that it has no desire to impose its system of government on the rest of world.

“And as Kissinger has also pointed out, unlike the USSR or even the US, China does not seek to persuade other countries to adopt its values, let alone its system of government,” he said at Asialink in Melbourne in 2011.

He also argued that China’s status as the world’s most important trading nation also supported his thesis that the rise of China would be largely peaceful. In 2010, China’s trade was 55 per cent of its GDP and comparable to the UK in the 1870s, when the British Empire was at the zenith of its power.

“Given the importance of stable economy in the regime’s legitimacy, China rulers themselves have more to lose than almost anyone from conflict that disrupts global economic flows,” he says.

A few things have changed since Turnbull delivered his 2011 Asialink speech. Beijing has become more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims against its neighbouring countries, which has alarmed many countries in the region including Australia.

Turnbull cautioned that escalating disputes between China and other Asian countries could trigger a war, drawing in the US with unpredictable consequences. The cabinet minister, who believes in the peaceful rise of China, sees Beijing’s more assertive policy stance as counterproductive.

“The counterproductive consequences have been to drive China’s neighbours not only into increasing their defence but into closer alliance with the United States,” he warns. “China’s better strategy would be one that builds trust with its neighbours and settles disputes pragmatically, as it did with Russia in 2004.”

Regardless what people may think of Turnbull’s assessment of the rise of China, his empathetic understanding of China’s recent humiliating history is something that is lacking among Australia’s senior political leaders. China’s national narrative has been defined by its recent memories. Understanding that is the key to understand Beijing’s intention.

Perhaps our political leaders need to read Kissinger’s On China, a grandmaster’s guide on modern China.  

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