July 18, 2008, Lawrence Cram, Richard Rigby, David Finkelstein, Katherine Morton and Germie Barmé

Audio is available for the following:




(Click to enlarge) From left: Katherine Morton, David Finkelstein, Lawrence Cram, Richard Rigby and Germie Barmé at the East-West Center in Washington on July 18, 2008, for the EWC-ANU-CNA event "Australian Perspectives on China and Northeast Asian Security."

Australian Perspectives on China and Northeast Asian Security


(Washington DC) July 18 – As a key stakeholder in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia’s future is inextricably linked with its neighbors’. With China becoming a more dominant force in the region, Australia must identify the trends, challenges and goals behind China’s rise. Richard Rigby, Director of the China Institute at the Australian National University (ANU), led a seminar discussion at the East-West Center in Washington on the current and future direction of China’s rise and its implications for Australia. Providing additional perspectives were Dr. David Finkelstein, Director of China Studies at the Center of Naval Analyses, Dr. Katherine Morton, Fellow in the Department of International Relations at ANU, and Professor Germie Barmé, professor of Pacific and Asian History at ANU.


Dr. Rigby began by highlighting key socio-political trends within China, emphasizing “not the rise but the re-rise” of China in the global arena. For the “first time in a long time,” the country is on a strong political and economic footing, and it finds itself placed in a position to shape the region to its interests and views. This has been reflected in the sudden dynamism within Chinese foreign policy. The PRC leadership has begun to move away from rigid non-interference in the affairs of other states to an active pursuit of bilateralism and multilateralism on issues from energy security to human rights.


However, “China is still a developing country,” said Dr. Rigby, and it confronts a plethora of pressing domestic problems, including Tibet and nationalism. Furthermore, it is unclear how China will exercise its newfound role in the world; fifth generation leaders may be more globally savvy but not necessarily more globally minded. In short, China still suffers from a split personality: on the one hand a rising China, symbolized by spectacular economic growth and newfound confidence, and on the other hand what Dr. Finkelstein termed, “a flailing China,” plagued by social instability and an uncertain role in the world.


The Chinese leadership’s coping strategy with this dichotomy has been to focus on and resolve the country’s many internal problems. The belief that “the best way to solve global problems is to take care of things at home” still permeates the leadership. The prioritization of domestic affairs has in turn led the Chinese to seek out a stable external environment in Asia, which will ultimately benefit Australia and the United States.


Dr. Finkelstein offered his perspective on the relationship between China’s domestic and foreign policy. Finkelstein concurred that the Chinese leadership faces “tremendous uncertainty” with regards to its role and position on international issues, and that China’s leaders are acutely aware of the fragility and vulnerability of their regime. Domestic concerns shape every aspect of China’s foreign policy, and a stable external environment is needed for China to reconcile the growing divide within China. However, Dr. Finkelstein questioned what Dr. Rigby – and the Chinese – meant by a stable external environment, and whether the Chinese were doing enough to promote regional stability. He briefly noted that there could be differences in how China and the West perceive stability. He further argued that China has more interests abroad than their foreign policy making apparatus has capabilities. Dr. Finkelstein urged new methods of policy and governance be created to reflect the many changes of the last few decades in China.


Dr. Morton elaborated on the domestic challenge of the environment, highlighting changing attitudes within the PRC leadership. Whereas environmental concerns were once over-shadowed by economic considerations, there is now strong political commitment to shift from a “clean up later” mentality to sustainable development. Policy makers are also realizing that it is no longer sufficient to prevent future pollution, but to deal with the immediate consequences of present pollutants as well. Trans-national issues such as climate change have also fostered policy coordination and international cooperation.




Event summary by Jonathan Feng, summer 2008 intern at the East-West Center in Washington.