How the China lobby is building a Great Wall of influence

Since the publication of Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister, much of the subsequent media coverage has focused either on his snobbish tendencies or on his supposed singling out of the Israel lobby’s influence on Australian foreign policy. Yet little has been made of the other lobby Carr refers to in the book -- namely, the China lobby.

Unlike the Israel lobby, which boasted its own faction within caucus -- the self-described ‘falafel faction’ -- the China lobby is altogether less cohesive and organised. Nonetheless, Carr saw fit to refer to them as such and, early on in his term as foreign minister, was keenly aware of their concerns.

“Australia had just made its decision about Huawei and we had announced a rotating of US marines through Darwin. Both left the Chinese somewhat uneasy,” Carr told China Spectator.

“It looked therefore like the relationship with China was going to suffer. That brought to the fore former Australian prime ministers, the academic Hugh White and some Australian business leaders with a big stake in China and its growth.”

At the time, billionaires Kerry Stokes, James Packer and Andrew Forrest were making overtures for -- as Carr put it in the diaries -- a "pro-Chinese re-alignment of Australian foreign policy".

Stokes, who has demonstrated a keen understanding of the Chinese market over almost 20 years, said he was repulsed by the presence of US troops on Australian soil not under Australian command and thought the decision to welcome them had upset many ordinary Chinese.

Just a month earlier, Tony Abbott -- then opposition leader -- had talked about political reform in a speech in Beijing. Kevin Rudd had previously criticised China’s human rights record in a speech to students at Peking University when he was prime minister.

“It’s difficult to imagine anything more disrespectful than someone coming to your own home and asking you to change your décor,” Stokes told the Australia in China’s Century Conference.

James Packer, who has extensive gambling interests in Macau, added: “I think we as a country have to try harder to let China know how grateful we are for their business.”

Paul Keating had launched Hugh White’s book The China Choice and Malcolm Fraser was getting started on his own book on China-Australia-US relations, Dangerous Allies, which argues that Australia should cut all military ties to the US.

The sour notes from these separate actors were reaching such a crescendo it gave the impression the ‘China lobby’ was singing in unison.

“The pro-China lobby are over-egging the pudding. They want to make us fidgety and defensive about our China policy. Make us anxious,” Carr wrote in his diaries.

The following week Dennis Richardson, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a former head of our domestic spy agency, implied that Stokes and Packer were putting their own commercial interests above that of Australia’s.

“Since when does any country worth its salt auction its alliance to the highest bidder?’’ Richardson asked an audience at Sydney University.

As Carr outlines in his diaries, Richardson’s first piece of advice to the new foreign minister earlier that year was unequivocal: his first overseas trip as foreign minister could not be to China but to the US.

“Going to China first is just not worth the fuss,” Richardson told Carr.

Despite Richardson’s advice, the complaints of the China lobby were now being heard in the US.

“There is a hint that the Americans feel our strategic vision is being distorted by Chinese pressure to our political system” Kim Beazley wrote in a cable that Carr pounced on.

Ultimately, Carr settled on a formulation that sat neatly between the arguments of the panda-huggers and the dragon-slayers.

“Don’t fuss too much over the Chinese and feed their games; recognise that they may enjoy putting us on the defensive; but don’t poke them in the eye either,” Carr wrote.

“I was determined to get the relationship back on a strong footing but I was not going to do it under any pressure,” Carr told China Spectator.

Carr’s line on China finally appeased the China lobby. In his last entry in the diary, Carr chalks it up as a win that he hadn’t heard from them in almost half a year.

In many ways, Carr’s formulation echoed John Howard’s stance of engaging economically with China while maintaining a special relationship with the US, which after all shares our common values, institutions and history.

On his recent trip to China, Tony Abbott reiterated Howard’s stance.

“I think China understands and respects the other relationships Australia has. And the point that I've been repeatedly making on this trip is that you don't make new friends by losing old ones.”

But perhaps Abbott’s greatest masterstroke was to pre-emptively mollify the pro-China business lobby by bringing them along with him on his trip to China.

“I congratulate Tony Abbott on doing it,” Carr told China Spectator.

“We need to make sure we’re behaving like Team Australia. I think that’s in Australia’s interests.”