The long game: Howard says Australia must wait out China aggressiveness

Australia will have to bide its time and wait out a more “aggressive and belligerent” leadership in China, former prime minister John Howard believes, while cautioning no country can ignore the financial importance of the world’s second largest economy.

Mr Howard, speaking at the release of the 2001 cabinet papers by the National Archives of Australia, said during his time in power he had enjoyed his relationship with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin who had shown himself open to the Western world and was the first Chinese head of state to visit Australia in 1999.

A different era – former prime minister John Howard at a joint conference with the president of China, Jiang Zemin, at Parliament House in Canberra in 1999.Credit:Mike Bowers

But there was a substantial difference between the outlook of President Jiang to current leader, Xi Jinping.

“What is changed is that the attitude of the current Chinese leadership is more aggressive and belligerent. I regret that,” Mr Howard said.

“We are dealing with different personalities. Personalities matter at the head of the government in any country but they particularly matter when the person at the head of government is all powerful. There’s a world of difference between Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin.”

According to Mr Howard, Australia will have to wait for a change in China’s leadership before a return to a more normal relationship.

“I think we have to play a long game with China,” he said.

“There has been a change at the top. I would certainly hope that I would like to believe that at some point we might return (to our past relationship).”

Tensions between China and the Western world have intensified over the past five years. Australia has faced trade sanctions on key exports while international concerns have grown over China’s attitude towards the South China Sea and its attitude towards Taiwan.

In November, Defence Minister Peter Dutton – who served in the Howard ministry – said China had engaged in the “occupation, fabrication and militarisation” of the South China Sea and its economic coercion against Australia.

This week, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Chinese government used its economic power to play democratic nations off against each other.

He said China was no longer the China “we thought about 10 years ago or even five years ago in some ways”, arguing that rather than focusing on individual economic imperatives, democratic nations had to work more closely together to prevent China dividing them.

“We’ve been competing and China has been from time to time very cleverly playing us off each other in an open market competitive way. We need to do a better job of working together and standing strong so that China can’t, you know, play the angles and divide us one against the other,” Mr Trudeau told Global News.

“We compete with each other. We’re trying to see how could we get better access for Canadian beef than Australian beef to this country or that market.”

Mr Howard said China was very important to Australia both economically and socially, noting that 1.4 million Australian citizens were of Chinese heritage. Mandarin and Cantonese are the most widely spoken foreign languages in Australia.

John Howard with the President of the China Jiang Zemin in Shanghai in 2001.Credit:Mike Bowers

But that did not mean issues of importance could be ignored.

Mr Howard said Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 was not “especially aggressive or unreasonable”, arguing it had not been followed up by “breast beating or bellicose language”.

“No country can afford to ignore the importance of trading relationships. But having said that, there’s no doubt that the belligerence shown has been obvious,” he said.

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