Living with China

By Philipp Ivanov

Chinese dragon and kids

Community, coherence and competency are the key to maintaining healthy engagement.

The big guy in the crowd

On November 17, 2014, the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping addressed both chambers of the Australian Parliament. As he outlined how China will achieve its dream of prosperity and security, there was one message that struck me. It warrants being quoted in full here. He said:

Many people applaud China’s achievements and have great confidence in China, while some others have concerns about China — and there are also people who find fault with everything China does. I think these diverse views are to be expected. After all, China is a large country of over 1.3 billion people. It is like the big guy in the crowd. Others naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act, and they may be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way or even take up their place.

The rest of the speech was more rigid and formal. But the message of China as the big guy in the crowd – assertive because of his size, not always well liked, sometimes ungainly as he grew too big too fast, perhaps even unsure what to do with his new-found strength – lingered throughout the rest of his address.

It is a useful metaphor for the kind of China Australia is dealing with today. It is a China that is more global, more powerful and willing to project its power, more authoritarian and sensitive to criticism, but also just as hard-working, entrepreneurial and dynamic as it has been for centuries. Perhaps, what I mistakenly took for awkwardness and hesitation in 2014 was just a gentler message to Australia and the rest of the world about getting accustomed to China’s burgeoning power. In 2019, we are much clearer how China intends to use it.

To many of us in an ill-defined West, this China is different from what we were prepared to envision.

To many of my Chinese friends and colleagues, China today is where it was always headed.

In this year’s edition of Disruptive Asia we attempted to frame the boundaries of Australia’s engagement with this “new” China.

It is clear from our authors that these boundaries will constantly shift, and Australia’s China policy will continue to be fluid, as we hedge against the challenges of China’s strategic trajectory and political influence, while fostering the mutual benefits of engagement with China in economic, educational, cultural and human-mobility domains. As one of our senior diplomats succinctly put it — Australia (and perhaps one can add many other countries in the region and beyond) is in a process of ongoing negotiations with China on what the rules of engagement are.

Therefore, we should not expect from our political leaders an all-encompassing, comprehensive statement of Australia’s long-term China policy and a neat narrative to explain it.

But what we – as a nation – can do is to prepare ourselves for living with a global and powerful China in a region that is more strategically contested, and more economically competitive and interconnected.

Such preparation will involve a coordinated and long-term domestic and international policy-development effort by governments, business, educational institutions and community to safeguard Australian interests as China continues to grow in power and influence, while preserving – and if possible expanding – the very real benefits which are gained through engagement with China.

At the heart of it, in my view, should lie the three elements: community, coherence and competency.


There are two communities Australian leaders need to engage better in relation to China.

First, a diverse community of nations that constitute Asia. Too often in Australia, China is regarded as Asia. By doing so we dismiss deep cultural, historical, economic and political differences between our Asian neighbours. Too often that helps to reinforce a view that Asia accepts China’s leadership and dominant economic and cultural influence. The last five years showed it has not. Nor does it reject it either. Each of our Asian neighbours is dealing with the big guy in the crowd, each hedges against it and engages with it simultaneously. Australia needs to strengthen its relations with Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia and other countries of ASEAN to grow and diversify our economy, but also to craft and test rules and collaborative efforts to keep the region peaceful and prosperous, with the rising China and powerful United States, in competition with each other. The government is already on a path to strengthening our key Asian partnerships, with the India Economic Strategy, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Indonesia- Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and the Pacific step-up, amongst other initiatives. But making these initiatives deliver tangible economic and foreign policy outcomes, and work in tandem with each other will be the next challenge.

Second, an equally diverse community of Australians of Chinese heritage is one of our most powerful assets in understanding and engaging with China. We should ensure that this community is at the forefront of the bilateral relationship, and deeply involved in shaping our understanding of the country. To do it effectively, Australia needs to address the issue of under-representation of Australians of non-Anglo-Celtic or European background in the leadership of our political, business, education and government institutions, including the recently announced National Foundation for Australia-China relations. The Foundation can and should lead by example, through the appointment of Australian-Chinese to its board and executive team, and ensuring its grant-making and outreach activities are inclusive and encourage participation and contribution by this important community.

China – as any other major power – will legitimately seek to influence Australia’s public and elite opinion, including through the Chinese diasporic communities in Australia. An inclusive, culturally diverse leadership of our institutions, representative of the make-up of our society can respond to this influence in a mature and reasonable manner, while being able to counter any unwelcome or coercive elements of it.


China’s obsession with national unity is not coincidental or new. It is a result of an aggregated historical experience that proved time and again that its national strength lies in unity, and weakness in division. As a young, robust, multicultural democracy and federation, Australia cannot mobilise public opinion or coordinate its national position quite so effectively as the People’s Republic of China. Some see it as a weakness. But they underestimate the resilience of our democratic system and its inherent ability to adapt. The debate about China’s influence in Australia over the past two years has shown the strength of our media, government and civil society. It occasionally produced ugly, racially-driven or simply misinformed views that undermined the quality of the debate, but it was vigorous, timely and much-needed, as Australians develop a more mature and nuanced understanding of China’s rise.

However, we cannot ignore the divisions our current debate on China has produced — amongst our communities (including the Australian-Chinese diaspora), business and national security circles, Commonwealth and State governments, media, within and between political parties, think-tanks and universities, and between those ’in the know’ and those with only public information to rely on. These divisions are to be expected in an open society, but they are also a major gift to those who want to influence and further divide us.

While we cannot bridge all of these differences, we will need to learn to communicate and coordinate better on China. First and foremost, this task will fall on the Commonwealth Government, but equally on our civil society, business and educational institutions to convene forums, commission research, and work with our communities and encourage a healthy, respectful and well-informed exchange of facts and views. Australia’s China debate and its reverberations at home and abroad is a powerful reminder to those who influence policy and public opinion – whether formally as politicians and government advisors or as journalists and commentators – that words are bullets not just in diplomacy, and that we should take utmost care not to conflate, offend, generalise or misinform.

A coherence and clarity in communicating to China will also be increasingly critical. It is a dangerous myth that Chinese interlocutors do not appreciate a direct and frank exchange of views. The Chinese system puts a high premium on consistency of official and diplomatic language. Such consistency is near impossible to achieve in a democracy. But there are ways, for example, for our political parties in government to share some vital security assessments with the opposition, to enable better coordination on diplomatic messaging amongst ministers (without sacrificing our Parliamentary openness), to increase the engagement between Commonwealth and State officials and politicians on China. Democracies are inherently open and adaptive systems and offer surprisingly powerful tools to build a united front of our own, without restricting diversity of opinions and freedom to express them.


We cannot deal with China effectively if we do not know the country well. The Asia literacy debate in Australia has ebbed and flowed for decades with limited results. But over those decades, as China has become more powerful and influential – in our region and around the globe – we have not taken our own capabilities to understand and effectively engage with China as a matter of national interest. It is high time we did.

It is positive that in the past two years, the China debate has widened and deepened in Australia, with diverse views from a greater variety of voices. Many have limited expertise on China or experience living, visiting or working in the country, but bring valuable expertise in security, business, ethics and politics. But to go beyond the debate into policy-setting and programs, we need deep China expertise. We also need our future generation to be China-literate to make well-informed decisions in our national interest, and we need to start investing in these capabilities now.

The new Foundation can convene a taskforce on China literacy policy and commission research on the policy options and programs to lift the level of China competency at all levels of our education system, business, parliaments, public service and security agencies, universities, cultural and community organisations. The Government can be a catalyst, but it will be up to our universities, think-tanks, non-profits and businesses to work independently and together to co-invest in our research and education on China, build and grow the centres of expertise on Chinese politics, defence, economy and society, and share this expertise with our community at large. There are already significant private and public-funding investments in this area, such as the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, and our own new national Centre in Melbourne.

The Australian-Chinese community is a part of the answer to the China literacy dilemma. By engaging this community in the China relationship architecture and the leadership of our institutions, we unlock vital cultural intelligence, highly complementary to any formal education programs.

Our China competencies are also built through professional and leadership exchanges. The initiatives such as the Australia-China High Level Dialogue, coupled with the existing and emerging business, academic and youth networks are ripe for some fresh thinking and support. In the climate of strained diplomacy, interactions between our businesspeople, journalists, academics and artists take on a new significance, as it allows for official and semi-official communications between our nations’ leaders and networks to occur. These exchanges are vital for our understanding where China is headed and what its elites are thinking. Contrary to concerns of a Chinese ‘invasion’, professional linkages with China – bounded by careful consideration of national interests and values – benefit Australia as much as they benefit China.

Confidently curious

Sitting alongside the three Cs above are confidence and curiosity. Australia remains one of the world’s most successful economies, democracies and multicultural societies endowed with its own resource-rich continent and talented people. It is fortunate to be prosperous and have few enemies. We should be confident that we can maintain a healthy relationship with China even though our interests and values may not always align. Projecting such confidence to our community will be the job of our political and civil society leaders. They should be doing more of it, while explaining both the worrisome and positive dynamics of ties with China.

We must also remain curious about China. It is a remarkable and complex country, offering a rich tapestry of opportunities and contradictions. It is this curiosity – be it by our prime ministers or city councillors, vice-chancellors or students, CEOs or small business owners – that led us to engagement with China in the first place. It’s this curiosity that will help us prepare for the future with the big guy in the crowd.


Philipp Ivanov is Chief Executive Officer of Asia Society Australia.

Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).