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Consistency and consequences: Julie Bishop on the future of Australia/China relations

13 August 2020

News and media


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This article was developed from a special episode of the podcast Democracy Sausage, which is produced by the Asia & the Pacific Policy Society in partnership with the Australian National University. You can listen to the podcast here.

Australia and New Zealand’s futures will be shaped by our relationships with Greater China and our understandings of the way the Chinese government works.

Professor Andrew Podger, co-editor of a new ANZSOG/Australian National University (ANU) Press book on Greater China, Designing Governance Structures for Performance and Accountability: Developments in Australia and Greater China, joined former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (now Chancellor of ANU) for a discussion about how best to approach this important relationship on ANU’s Democracy Sausage podcast, hosted by Professor Mark Kenny.

The book is a product of the Greater China Dialogue on Public Administration which has been running since 2011 and addresses issues of common interest to the three jurisdictions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan and Australia.

Professor Podger said the Dialogue aimed to “build a rich understanding of public administration, and each other” including issues around governance structures, budgeting and how executive government functioned.

He said that Australia needed to “stand by our values but not preach” and to recognise what we could learn from the PRC’s approach to government.

Ms Bishop said she believed the Australian Government had recently shifted its position to become slightly more critical of the PRC, and that understanding the PRC better was vitally important for political and business leaders.

“It is a vital book for business and political leaders who need to understand how China makes decisions and why. If not, that can lead to enormous miscalculations and misjudgements on a number of fronts,” she said.

Professor Podger highlighted the importance of understanding the PRC’s government structures.

“In the case of the People’s Republic of China the difference is that there is no separation between politicians and bureaucrats, they are all members of the cadre.”

He also said that there were areas where Australia could learn from the PRC despite the difference in systems of governance.

“Urban government and planning is one area. When you look at the scale of urbanisation in China, and the structures they use for planning and project management, they have an expertise which is formidable and worth looking at.”

He said that while PRC leader Xi Jinping was attempting to strengthen central control, there were things going on under the surface and an internal debate about the contradictions involved in trying to be a ‘socialist market’ economy.

“It is easy to see where China has come from, but harder to see where it is going,” he said.

They have had to reform the role of government as they have gone from a socialist to a market economy, for example developing new policies in health and welfare, and allowing civil society to emerge.

“It is still a one-party state and Xi Jinping is trying to strengthen control, but they are also trying to professionalise their delivery of things like hospitals,” Professor Podger said.

Ms Bishop said that the PRC had recently been “picking fights on several fronts” and had been more assertive. Ms Bishop posited that this was either because Xi Jinping was trying to reassert authority in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and find issues to get people to rally around the flag, or that the PRC leadership felt that other nations were distracted by the pandemic.

She said that it could sometimes be difficult for business leaders to accept the foreign policy objectives of the government.

“Governments take advice from the security agencies and from DFAT. Then it is up to the Prime Minister and Cabinet to adopt policies informed by that advice.

“We need to avoid ad-hoc, reactive stances that demonstrate inconsistency. And we need to look through the potential range of consequences for taking stands.”

Ms Bishop said that the 2017 Foreign Affairs White Paper, prepared when she was the minister remained relevant, looking to balance active engagement and being firm where there are differing views between the two nations.

“We got it right there. It shows how we can balance our values and our interests in a blueprint for the next ten years, that sets out how we should react, or can react, in a coherent way.”

Professor Podger said he agreed that Australia needed to take a consistent, coherent approach, but said we should not see everything through an ideological prism.

“We need to be pragmatic and work with other countries – such as India, Japan, Philippines or Vietnam – to work out how we handle the issues that concern us.

“We need to stand by our values but be careful not to preach – we do not have a model that can simply be replicated there.”

Designing Governance Structures for Performance and Accountability: Developments in Australia and Greater China, edited by Andrew Podger, Tsai-tsu Su, John Wanna, Hon Chan and Meili Niu, is the second book published from the Greater China Australia Dialogue on Public Administration, and comprises a series of papers from the Dialogue’s 2017 workshop at City University in Hong Kong.

The book–available through ANU Press–has an in-depth focus on the structures and processes used within the executive arm of government, including the non-government agencies that help develop and implement policy.

The  ANZSOG/ANU Press series  has now published more than 50 volumes, with more than two million downloads.