The Guardian • Issue #2105

A visit from Premier Li Qiang

Where our real national interest lies

Chinatown Melbourne.

Chinatown Melbourne. Photo: Travis – (CC BY 2.0)

The visit of Chinese Premier Li Qiang to Australia has revealed much about this country and how it views its relationship with China. Two distinct and opposing versions of Australia are on view. It is a schizophrenic relationship based on mutually exclusive ‘needs.’ On one hand is the need to maintain a strong trading relationship. On the other is the need to show unwavering support for the USA in its efforts to maintain economic and political hegemony.

Australia needs to trade and export, and has a desperate need to avoid a collapse of an already flatlining economy. China remains Australia’s most important trading partner. The Australian economy is barely registering a pulse. It grew by just 1.1 per cent in the last 12 months, and in the last quarter that figure was 0.1 per cent.

Trade with China represents roughly 4.5 per cent of Australia’s total disposable per capita income, roughly $2,500 per household. Australian trade with China can also be counted in jobs. That relationship means 569,000 jobs, or 4.2 per cent of total employment.

Two-way trade sits at $326.9 billion a year. Australia needs China far more than China needs Australia, but the relationship is mutually beneficial.

The visit of Premier Li was heralded by some as a possible reawakening of a positive relationship after the trade war days of the last few years. Chinese media has certainly seen it that way.

Anthony Albanese was quick to point out the positive nature of the newly emerging relationship. He’s proud of “stabilising” Australia’s relationship with China, and talked about restoring “high-level dialogue and engagement … through our patient, calibrated and deliberate approach.” Dialogue, says Albanese, allows us to “pursue the national interest” in important areas such as trade, education, and climate change. Albanese is understandably keen to stress that his approach to China is more mature than the Morrison government’s – not a high bar to clear. He also stressed that his approach is paying off for trade, saying that his government’s “steady engagement” has lead to “the removal of almost all trade impediments on Australian exports to China.” Albanese added that “there is still more work to do.”

At the same time, there were clouds in the air. Behind the smiles and the photo opportunities were the political demands, largely to meet the needs of our American ally. The Australian government seemed obliged to raise alleged human rights issues, Taiwan, and the ‘right’ of Australian naval vessels to sail, unimpeded, in disputed waters. That nagging phrase ‘national interest’ kept bobbing up. It is a rather ambiguous expression. It is certainly in the interest of both countries to trade freely. China might say, and would be right to say that it is protecting its interests in maintaining a strong military deterrence against potential threat from the US and its allies, including Australia.


Other demands rise to the surface. Demands that are opposed to those of free and fair trade, of economic interest and of mutual advantage. Australia sits poised to develop stronger economic and diplomatic relations with China. It could become what the Chinese repeatedly call a ‘win-win’ situation, and yet the siren call to defend the interests of the United States rings out.

Defending the USA’s “interests” instead of our own means impoverishing the country. It means doubling the outlay on the military to $100 billion a year. It means developing an offensive military strategy that is based on ‘projecting force’ and has little to do with ‘defence’ of the country. Still the government of the day, be it ALP or Coalition blows dust into the faces of the people by talking up the ‘threat’ of an ‘assertive’ China while simultaneously talking up the benefits of a good and improved trading relationship with China.


The anti-China media and pro-US analysts who work so diligently to form public opinion have no time for doubts, or shades of grey. They hold only one simple, and wrong belief: what’s good for US global power is good for Australia. For them, there is only one line and one way forward. They are prepared to destroy the economy, shatter the futures of Australians, impoverish millions, on the altar of anti-China, pro-imperialist, pro-US politics.

Chief among those who have denounced any developments of better relations with China is the right-wing think tank and advisor to government, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). A recent article by Michael Pezzullo, disgraced former Defence Deputy Secretary and lead author of the 2009 Defence White Paper, falls back on old arguments.

Pezzullo speaks of trade “coercion” that was “political warfare, where trade was used as a weapon to attack our sovereignty.” He accuses China of using “ political warfare,” and seeking to “attack political and social fault lines and undermin[e] national resolve, setting the conditions for eventual subjugation to Chinese interests.” He argues that Australia runs a the risk of dealing with an “imagined” China rather than facing up to what he ludicrously describes as its ‘real’ face, nature, and objectives.

Pezzullo uses Rush Doshi and his The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, as his guide. This virulent anti-China hawk is a key figure in the US Council on Foreign Relations which publishes the influential Foreign Affairs magazine. Foreign Affairs has the ear of the Pentagon.

Journalist and professional warmonger Peter Hartcher, in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald was quick to attack the meeting between Albanese and Li. Hartcher described China as “a malign bully,” and sneered at Premier Li Qiang’s desire to “shelve our differences.”

Australia has differences with every country. The point of relations with other countries, especially for Australia, which depends on trade,  is to work around differences, reach some common ground and achieve some common good.

Albanese will continue a show of ‘mending bridges’ while building military ties with the US, whose express intention is to stop the rise of China. Pezzullo, Hartcher, Albanese, all talk of promoting the national interest. Our national interest is not the same as that of the United States. That interest is not advanced by blindly following the dictates of the United States. The real national interest of Australia is best served by promoting peace, economic independence, and economic policies that would increase national prosperity and therefore improve the well-being of the people.

Pezzullo: a reminder

P Farmer

Mike Pezzullo is being treated as some sort of oracle by people who only want to promote war with China. But what’s his claim to fame?

Pezzullo was Home Affairs Secretary under the last Coalition government, where his boss was one Peter Dutton, now opposition leader. If Pezzullo sees China as a “bully,” it might be a case of projection. An independent inquiry into his time at the top of the heap found that he used his power to seek a benefit for himself. He was also found to have breached the Australian Public Service code of conduct at least 14 times. While not an elected politician, Pezzullo tried to manipulate government ministers, and censor journalists. He also shared confidential documents when it suited him.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane described Pezullo as “an object lesson for anyone tempted to trust national security bureaucrats.” Pezzullo was allegedly behind the Australian Federal Police raids on a journalist’s house, and the ABC’s Sydney offices. When he didn’t like Independent Senator Rex Patrick’s criticism of the raids, he telephoned the Senator in a way Patrick found “menacing.”

The Albanese government sacked Mike Pezzullo after the independent inquiry, but he’s still happy to offer opinions on Australia-China relations. We’ll look elsewhere for advice on protecting democracy and freedom thanks, Mike.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More