Asialink Milestones: John Howard Reflects on the China Challenge and Trump's Legacy

By Donald Greenlees, Senior Adviser, Asialink

Soon after John Howard became prime minister in March 1996, he saw relations with China, then a significant and promising trading partner, go into free fall.

A series of actions by his government—public support for a US show of strength in the Taiwan Strait, a visit to Taiwan by a senior minister, a meeting between Howard and Tibet’s leader-in-exile the Dalai Lama, and the axing of a development finance program—resulted in China refusing to accept visits from Australian ministers.

“The relationship really fell through the floor,” says Howard today.

Ties stabilised and started to recover after Howard met Chinese president Jiang Zemin on the side lines of an APEC meeting in Manila in November 1996. The tone of the reconciliation was set with Jiang’s remark to Howard at the end of their meeting: “Face to face is much better, isn’t it?”

In a timely Podcast interview with Asialink senior adviser Donald Greenlees, the former prime minister reflects on his own record in building a strong economic partnership with China and how to stabilise a relationship that once again is in trouble.

One of his key conclusions: establishing a good personal rapport between leaders is essential.

That is likely to prove harder now for Scott Morrison in dealing with Xi Jinping, a leader who has demonstrated he is “infinitely more assertive and aggressive” than his two predecessors, Jiang and Hu Jintao.

But, as John Howard says, finding a way to coexist, and even cooperate, with China is a vital strategic interest for Australia. So too in Howard’s estimation is maintaining the strength of Australia’s security ties to the US – even as in the interview he rates Donald Trump’s record in foreign relations as a “mixed bag”.

Listen to Part One of a Two Part Interview with John Howard on Australia’s relations with Asia:

The following are highlights of the John Howard Podcast

On Donald Trump’s presidency:

I said when Trump became president, that there would be good and bad and its proved to be the case. I think Trump has done a number of very good things. I think his general handling of the American economy has been good… And he really has achieved far more in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab states than many people thought possible.

On the other hand, I thought his handling of North Korea was strange. It seemed to have no coherence.  So, it’s been a mixed bag foreign policy-wise.

On the state of American politics:

I think there is a little too much doom and gloom both inside America and outside about the state of American institutions and all these stories about a broken country. I don’t think America is broken at all. America is still the most powerful country in the world.

On Trump’s China policy:

I think a lot of the things he has done in relation to China have been quietly applauded by other countries in our region. You have got to remember that countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are very uneasy about China.

On the role of the Quad:

I think that one of the smartest things that America has done and we have done in recent times on our region is to give new life to the Quad. I thought that trilateral security dialogue that we developed towards the end of my time in government of America, Japan and Australia was a very good idea and it was a way of counterbalancing China that could not be criticised because we could say we are just three democracies (coming together).

On access to a COVID-19 vaccine:

We have got to make sure when this vaccine comes that it’s fairly distributed. I don’t care what instrument you use to do that.  The World Health Organisation may have a role in that. Whatever it is. It is very, very important because if that doesn’t happen it will cause enormous unhappiness.

On warnings Indo-Pacific countries might have to choose between the US and China:

There is a vital Australian interest in avoiding such a choice like the plague. It serves Australia no good to even contemplate that… the reality is America will always be closer to Australia because we are similar societies, we have common values. Values bind societies more closely together than anything else. But China is of huge economic significance to our country. Strategically, it is overwhelmingly on our interest to retain America as our major security ally, it is a natural fit… But it’s also in our long-term strategic interests to have China as a major export destination.

On the key to good ties with China:

You have got to have a good personal relationship. And the key to our relationship is to accept that (with) a country of Australia’s size… what matters to the Chinese is the relationship between our head of government and their head of government. I remember when Bob Carr was appointed foreign minister he courteously came to see former prime ministers to get their views about Asia. He said, ‘have you got any advice?’ And I said, ‘Yes, tell Julia Gillard, to get to Beijing as soon as possible and have a head to head meeting with the Chinese leadership’, because that’s what matters.

On suggestions Howard could go as an envoy to China:

I am there to help. I’m not setting myself up as anything special.

On moving the China relationship forward:

[W]e have to find areas where the issues are free of ideological argument where we are working together…. [We should] search around for things that we might be able to do in common that don’t impinge on difficult areas. There may be some humanitarian things we have in common. I’m a great believer with China, find something that we agree on and make a success of that.

I think we should always strive to have a peaceful coexistence with China, an agreed cooperation, accepting our ideological differences. For the time being at least perhaps, for the foreseeable future we are going to have a more assertive Chinese leadership, perhaps not indefinitely.

On his first meeting with Jiang Zemin:

I said to him, ‘look, the key to our relationship is let’s focus on things we agree on. There are a whole lot of things we don’t agree on and we are not going to agree on. Let’s not get into ideological arguments – you are not going to convince me and I’m not going to convince you. But let’s just focus on things we have in common. It was a good meeting and at the end he said to me, ‘it’s better face to face, isn’t it?’

On the task facing Scott Morrison over China:

I know enough from my discussions with him that the prime minister is alive to the challenge. But we have also got to remember there is a qualitative difference between Xi Jinping and his two predecessors.  I mean he is infinitely more assertive and aggressive than either Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin.

These sorts of issues didn’t arise 10 or 15 years ago because there seemed to be a greater common purpose in the relationship. Everybody was part of the team, everybody was trying to improve the trade. Everybody was saying ‘well, look, ok they are a dictatorship, communist dictatorship, but they are an important customer, we need to build it – migrants, students all of that. There was an atmospheric difference. Now that has changed. Why has that changed? I think the major, but not only reason it has changed, is that the Chinese under Xi Jinping have become more aggressive.

On China’s future challenges:

My long-term view is still that China faces two great challenges. It faces the challenge of an aging population, which is horrendous for them. It will be the slowest turning ocean liner of the 21st century that. That’s number one. And the other one is the inevitable denouement. You get an increasingly affluent population born into relative comfort. And are they going to forever put up with being told how to run their lives? I’m not sure.

On whether the door is closing to a peaceful resolution of China’s claims to Taiwan:

The door is getting a bit creaky. I would have to acknowledge that. I am still hopeful. There is no doubt that the crackdown in Hong Kong bodes ill for a more accommodating resolution (of Taiwan).

Banner image: Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard speaks at joint press conference with then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Washington, D.C., USA - February 4, 2003. Credit: US Department of Defense.