China respects "Australian influence" in Pacific Island countries, says Minister Liu Jianchao
And China welcomes Australian journalists, says Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, who navigated challenging questions last week in Sydney
As Australia and Papua New Guinea signed a sweeping security pact this week, comments by Liu Jianchao in Sydney last week that China “respect[s] the role and the influence of Australia in the Pacific Island countries” come into mind.
The Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee since last year said Beijing has no hidden agenda in Australia’s Pacific neighborhood
China has no intention of seeking any sphere of influence. We respect the role and the influence of Australia in the Pacific Island countries.
But it could be done between our two countries. I mean, if the Australian government is happy, we could really have consultations over the regional affairs of these island countries, how we could work together for the economic development in these countries…And if New Zealand is happy, we can include them or can work with them as well, or any kind of multi-party collaboration on these issues.
But we should try not to view China’s presence in this regard as any kind of threat to Australia. No, it’s never a threat…So anything that Australians are not certain with, China’s partnership with these countries, let us know, so we can tell you what we’ve been doing with them. So any concern that you have, let us know. So we do respect the interests, the influence, of Australia in this region.
The International Department, perhaps more commonly known as the International Liaison Department, has long been understood to be handling party-to-party relations, especially the CPC’s relations with political parties in developing countries. Since taking office as head of the International Department, however, Liu has trotted the globe - and on many occasions to the West, including giving a speech and answering questions at the Chatham House.
In a significant difference from the usual practice of senior Chinese official, Liu speaks fluent English and answers questions directly from the audience in these live-streamed events.
It’s not every day you see a Chinese official comfortably citing his girlfriend-turned-wife, son, and even grandson to demonstrate goodwill in public. But Liu navigated a welcoming but perhaps still suspicious audience in Sydney with ease and agility.
Take my own experience and my family, for example. When I was an undergraduate with the Foreign Studies University, at the time it was called the Foreign Languages Institute. The first guest of honour, guest of state to my university was Bob Hawke, who kindly spoke to us, and he was warmly greeted by my wife, at that time my girlfriend, and myself.
My wife is a great fan of the Australian literature novel, which is The Thorn Birds. She read it for a number of times and that could be one of the reasons why we started to date and got married eventually. And my son, who is also a fan of the Australian movie, the Crocodile Dundee, which was almost his age at the moment. So a lot of connections. My grandson is five years old and I hope that I could bring him to Australia when he grows a little bit older.
I think that the value that the Australians cherish, which is diversity and inclusiveness, perfectly resonates with the Chinese belief of harmony without uniformity. This is indeed where the root of China-Australia friendship lies.
No doubt one of the best performers of the People’s Republic of China on the world stage these days, the veteran diplomat actually ventured to enforce internal discipline within the CPC between 2015 and 2018, before coming back to foreign affairs at the central level.
China-Australia ties sank - or, in Liu’s words, “suffered setbacks” - in recent years before a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the end of 2022.
Albanese, who replaced Scott Morrison in May 2022, visited China this month and climbed to the top of China’s social media after a video of him in Shanghai went viral.
[Credit: Will Glasgow, The Australian.]
In my personal opinion, Liu was confident and conciliatory in Sydney, despite headlines such as China warns Australia to act prudently in naval operations in the South China Sea, Chinese diplomat lashes Australia over warships in South China Sea , and Chinese official warns Australia on navy movements in East, South China Seas perhaps giving a different impression.
Here are the exchanges between Liu and Professor James Laurenceson
Professor James Laurenceson:
…For example, just over the last week, there’s been a raft of opinion articles written on the event of a Chinese naval vessel directing sonar at Australian navy divers, causing minor injuries. And so they would say, well, this doesn’t appear to be a country that’s behaving in a way that’s like a friend. Now I’m quite confident that Beijing has a different view on that, but what would your message to those Australian concerns be?
Mr Liu Jianchao:
Well, let me ask you, well, the person who raised this question, the question that what would happen if a Chinese naval ship came to your territory, well, your waters, or the waters that is near to Australia? Naturally you’ll send your ships to monitor, to identify, and to do anything that could prepare any wrong happenings, or that something dangerous will happen to you. The same thing with China. And China has all the legal right to do this kind of monitoring, identifying, and do protection from anything that could harm China.
That incident took place in the water where there’s no demarcation of that water, so there’s some kind of dispute between China and Japan. My question would be why the Australian naval ship should be travelling to that area? And naturally you will raise China’s concern, and China will have to do what it needs to do. But China did it in a very professional way. We did nothing that harms the sailors, the naval people, or that ship. So I think that this is the kind of thing that needs to be discussed at certain level so to build up any kind of pre consultations, or notification, or anything that could really prevent such misunderstandings from happening between the two militaries.
Professor James Laurenceson:
Do you think Beijing was happy with how that incident evolved? I mean, clearly from your message now, Beijing has concerns about Australian naval vessels approaching Chinese waters. But after that event happened, do you think that both sides managed the challenge wisely? Or do you think it was escalated to a level that it didn’t need to be escalated to?
Mr Liu Jianchao:
I think such small instance could really escalate if it’s not properly managed, because the press is following and will raise any kind of concern or emotions from the general public. But I’m sure that the ministries, the people in the navy, could understand what is the nature of this kind of issue, so I don’t really believe that there’s anything to play up. But when it comes to a time when China-Australia relations is just about to improve, an such incident will be, well, counterproductive for the improvement of the relationship. But let’s not panic.
And the second thing is that maritime issues is very complicated and complex; South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, Eastern China Sea. With Eastern China Sea and South China Sea we do have, well, different claims of the maritime rights or sovereignty, or sovereign rights, in those regions, as you probably very well know. So I think that we do urge the Australian government, and also the military, to act with great prudence in this area because China and the countries concerned from Southeast Asia, and also Japan included, will be moving about this very carefully. And that’s why for the so many decades China and these countries have remained in peace, and have been very useful and effective consultations with each other.
So look at what is happening, what has happened in the last, well, almost more than 70 years after Second World War. Our region has basically remained peaceful. There’s been no major wars in our region, despite the, well, differences that we have – also territorial, well, differences, disputes. But you seldom see any kind of major conflicts. And the only two wars that took place in our region, Asia-Pacific, would be the Korean War and the Vietnamese War, and the wars were not really started among these countries ourselves.
So I think that this kind of peaceful environment is essential for the economic takeoff for many economies, like South Korea, well, in Chinese Taiwan and China itself, and Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia. So we’ve been enjoying peace for so many years we don’t really want peace and stability be disturbed by any factor, internal factor, or any factor from our side. So I think it’s really tragic to see what is happening in Europe, which is supposed to be a very peaceful place where all the advanced economies concentrate. But you do see conflicts and wars. So let’s treasure and value the peace and stability that we enjoy, and give prosperity, economic development, an even better chance, and the sustained opportunity, a long-term opportunity, for future development for the benefit of our peoples in this region.
Professor James Laurenceson:
Okay. My understanding of the Australian position is that when it comes to our exclusive economic zone, Chinese naval vessels are actually welcome in that region. So let me just put that on the record.
In Sydney, Liu also told the audience that
China and Australia have no historical grievances, no conflicts of fundamental interests. China never views Australia as an adversary or a threat, and never acts as an adversary or threat to Australia.
While recognizing China’s achievement for example in building “the world’s largest education, social security, and healthcare systems,” Liu highlighted
China’s developments should not be exaggerated. China’s GDP in 2022 was at USD $18 trillion, 10 times of that of Australia. But in per capita terms, our GDP was only one-fifth of that of Australia. China will remain a developing country for a long time to come.
China is ready to work with all developing countries to advance global modernisation, Liu said, and that’s the spirit behind China’s relations with the Pacific Island countries. Apparently trying to soothe the mind of a welcoming but perhaps still suspicious Australia, Liu stressed
The co-operation between the two sides is for the development purposes, so far as to grow the economy and benefit the people. All co-oporation projects are overbought with no political strings attached and there’s been no hidden agenda. We have never interfered in the internal affairs of the Pacific Island countries, nor attempted to get any exclusive results. Still less will we seek any kind of spheres of influence. China is ready to work with Australia and other countries to carry out tripartite or multi-partite cooperation in the region by leveraging our respective strengths so as to support Pacific Island countries in achieving self-reliant and resilient growth.
Liu also dedicated an entire paragraph to assure the Australians that “China’s modernisation is peaceful in nature.”
Aggression and expansion are not in our genes. For China to realise development, we need peace and stability, not conflict or war. China will not take the old path of colonialisation or plundering, or the wrong path of seeking hegemony with growing expanse. Over the past 70-plus years since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has not provoked a single conflict or war, or occupied even an inch of foreign land; and China is the only major country to incorporate its commitment of peaceful development into its constitution. China will never pursue hegemony or expansion, whatever stage of development it may reach.
Upon a question from Laurenceson on when there will be new Australian journalists based in China again, Liu mentioned “they left China for their own reasons” but
Australians are welcome to come back, because we believe that journalists are playing a very important role in making a country better understood by its own country, so we believe that this is important…if they wish to go back to China, or if they wish to send new people, they have to go through the procedure of applying for journalist IDs and visa. So that’s the process. I think that they’re welcome to be back. As far as – when I was working with the Foreign Ministry, I was basically working for the media. So personally, I have very good relationship with them, so I think that you are welcome, but you have to go through the procedures
Liu is candid about having no excessive ambitions for bilateral ties shortly
when we say that the relationship between China and Australia needs to be stabilised, we mean that it should not be deteriorating anymore. It should come back to its norms, which is a kind of, what we agreed upon on the definition of the relation, which should be a comprehensive strategic partnership. So we stick to that relationship, the definition, but we are not that ambitious after suffering so many years of setback, of difficulties in our bilateral relationship. We need to restore the relationship to its desired state by only a gradual manner. So we need to improve and then stabilise, and then to develop. So I think that we should not move away from the definition of a comprehensive strategic partnership, and that’s a relationship that need to be stabilised. And then we should work together to make the relationship improved, and then to make it stronger.
For more about Liu Jianchao’s speech, conversation with Professor James Laurenceson, and his Q&A with a live audience, below is the full video