Colin Mackerras: Australia veering toward China in Trump era
Colin Mackerras stands in front of the Great Hall of the People on the day he is awarded the Friendship Award in September 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Colin Mackerras
Colin Mackerras is a world-renowned sinologist and specialist on China’s international relations. He has also won international acclaim for his research on Chinese theatre and China’s ethnic minorities, politics, social development, and image in the West. Over the past half century, the Australian academic has authored and edited over 20 books on China-related studies, with most of the works are based on his on-the-spot investigation and analysis of a wide range of sources.

President Xi Jinping specially paid tribute to Professor Mackerras during his visit of Canberra in November 2014. Xi thanked for his efforts in “explaining the real China to the world” while addressing the Australian Parliament. “With passion and unremitting endeavor, Professor Mackerras has built a bridge for people in our two countries to be closer,” said Xi.

From the early 1980s till now, Mackerras visits China every year for a couple of months working on his research, attending conferences and teaching at Renmin University of China and Beijing Foreign Studies University, among other institutions. He was awarded the “Friendship Award” by the Chinese government in September 2014.

Mackerras began to specialize in the Australia-China relations since the 1980s. In 1985, his book titled From Fear to Friendship—Australia’s Policies toward the People’s Republic of China was published; and in 1996, Australia and China—Partners in Asia, his second book on the subject, came out.

In mid-March, Professor Mackerras gave a lecture on Australia-China Relations in the Trump Era at the Griffith University where he is Emeritus Professor. talked with the Australian academic in Beijing to get his perspective on the issue, when President Xi Jinping is set to meet US President Donald Trump next week in Florida and Premier Li Keqiang has just finished his five-day visit of Australia.

Australia veering toward China

Talking about Premier Li’s recent visit, Mackerras said it was a success because Premier Li made a very good impression. “He covered a lot of issues, made a speech to the parliament and watched a football match with Turnbull. It is his folksy and very relaxed style that went down well and easily relate to ordinary Australians,” said Mackerras.

Premier Li had used his five-day visit to Australia to focus on economic issues between the two countries, while encouraging Australian companies to partake in China’s Belt and Road (B&R) initiative - a vast series of infrastructure projects aiming to pave a modern-day ‘Silk Road’ between Asia, Europe and Africa.

China’s B&R initiative is seen by some commentators to be merely a tool for the Asian country to assert economic and political clout in the region in a bid to counter the United States. Also, the plan relentlessly pushed by Xi’s administration is referred to by several analysts to be something “doomed to fail”.

Mackerras instead believes the B&R, representing a major initiative by China, “is going to be extremely important and make a very big difference in the long run.”

“This would lead to a change in the balance of economics and politics between China and the US, and a trend in China’s favor will form,” he said, “Although the security treaty between the US and Australia would not fade off, Canberra is going to veer towards China. And it has already done that.” Mackerras commented Premier Li’s visit has strengthened the trend.

A 2016 poll by Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute found that most Australians don’t like Trump. “They think he’s too arrogant, too pushy, and doesn’t represent the kind of policies they like,” said Mackerras.

He confirmed that Australia’s President Malcolm Turnbull has been a little bit ambivalent toward Trump because “Trump was quite brusque toward him in a telephone conversation, yet Trump is the US president so he wants to get on with him.” According to Mackerras, Turnbull is quite happy to be more impartial between China and the US.

It was reported by the Guardian earlier that Premier Li had warned Australia not to take sides between China and the US, which might lead to a new cold war. Mackerras suggested his government to especially stay out of the South China Sea issues. China is not the only one to build islands there, and the whole question of the ownership of South China Sea territory is extremely complicated - it has historical roots that go back before the People’s Republic of China was established, he said.

However, although the Turnbull government is trying to stay out of it, Mackerras warned, there remains very conflicting sides. “There are a lot of people within the government who think Australia should take sides,” he said, mentioning Julie Biship, Australian foreign minister’s recent speech in Singapore that had called for the US to be more involved in Asia and China to be more democratic in order to fully achieve its potential.

Favorable situation

US President Trump signed an executive order to formally withdraw from the TPP trade deal, while China, as the second-largest economy in the world, is seeking to strengthen its role in global affairs. It was previously reported that President Xi Jinping had confirmed China’s commitment to globalization during his first Davos appearance this January.

“China is now promoting a globalization based on China, while the US seems to be retreating from globalization,” Mackerras said. He analyzed that globalization is in retreat as far as America is concerned, while for Asian countries, it’s not. “Asians want to continue because it has raised the economy. And although Trump wants to withdraw, he’s going to find a lot of opposition in doing that,” he added.

About the coming Xi-Trump meeting, Mackerras regards it as a good sign. “Although Trump’s foreign policy remains to be unpredictable, the most recent comments made by Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, have sent more positive signs,” Mackerras said. In his view, Tillerson seems to be more even and practical and that is in line with China’s interests.

Tillerson’s visit of Beijing in mid-March is expected to pave the way for the first meeting between Xi and Trump next week at Trump’s private club in Mar-a-Lago, Florida. It is reported by the Diplomat that at a news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson said the US-China relationship is guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

Mackerras emphasized that Tillerson had used positive phrases like “win-win”. So, he regards that Trump will see it’s in his interest and also in America’s interest for the US and China to maintain a smooth relationship.

“President Xi would try to persuade Trump to stay out of the South China Sea issue when they meet. The situation has changed in China’s favor since the tribunal in The Hague ruled against Chinese claims to rights in the disputed waters,” said Mackerras, adding Philippine’s new government led by Rodrigo Duterte is quite positive toward China. And the same is the case with Malaysia and some other countries in Southeast Asia.

Fear of China

Mackerras’ book to discuss the ways in which Westerners have perceived China - Western Images of China was first published in 1989. In 2013, the professor completely updated the material for a new book published in Beijing and entitled China in My Eyes in English and Wo Kan Zhongguo (我看中国in the Chinese.)  Until now, he continues to work on related research and give lectures on the theme.

“Western images of China are two-fold. On one hand, people admire China’s economic growth, on the other hand, they think China’s rise may be a challenge to the West,” said Mackerras. He then noted that in his view, there is a big shift in the world that is taking place, and the fear of China is coming back especially in America.

“Western images of China, although most are far from ridiculous, they are very political,” he said, explaining that the bias and focus on particular aspects which may not be as important as other aspects prove that these images are always biased.

Professor Mackerras thinks Western images of China depend not only on China itself, but also on factors like ideology, political situation and changing power relations. So, in the Western countries, China has served both as a model and as a threat.

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