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Christopher Pyne: The Overreaction To Those Chinese Warships Was Ignorant Paranoia

There was more than a touch of paranoia, ignorance and ‘playing to the peanut gallery’ about last week’s reaction to the People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels' visit to Australia.

The China-Australia military-to-military relationship is sophisticated, long standing, relatively deep and to be welcomed.

Our countries work closely together -- in particular with respect to limiting people-smuggling, apprehending drug smugglers and interdicting illicit drug shipments in the Indo-Pacific.

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A Chinese Navel ship departs the Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney, Friday, June 7, 2019. (Image: AAP)

Only last year, China and Australia conducted Operation Pandaroo in the Blue Mountains of NSW and Sydney Harbour following a similar successful Operation Pandaroo in 2016. The Chinese PLA Navy took part in Exercise Kakadu in the waters off Northern Australia in September 2018 as part of the largest military drill of its kind.

Just this year, in April, the Australian frigate 'HMAS Melbourne' visited Qingdao in China as part of the PLA Navy’s International Fleet Review.

When I was in Beijing and Guangzhou in January, I was left in no doubt that, while there are always matters to be managed in the China-Australia-United States relationship, our economic relationship remains strong and our military relationship is mutually respectful and focussed on understanding each other’s intentions and interests.

The Australian and Chinese flags fly side by side aboard a Chinese Navel ship in Sydney. (Image: AAP)

These people-to-people and military-to-military engagements are commonplace and vital to ensure our countries are engaged with each other in a way that assists us all.

All of this is understood by those who take foreign policy and defence policy in Australia seriously. They understand that ignorance is dangerous.

‘Playing to the peanut gallery’ can lead to poor policy choices, hurt ambitious Australian businesses seeking to export to China to help grow our economy, and diminish our international student market, which is vital to the financial health of our tertiary education sector.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t continue to act in our own best national interests in matters such as navigating the South China Sea as appropriate and playing our part, along with allies, in monitoring sanctions applied to North Korea. But being strong and sensible are not mutually exclusive propositions.

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As Dennis Richardson, AO -- former Secretary of the Department of Defence, Ambassador of Australia to Washington DC, and Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation -- said about the reaction to the Chinese ships’ visit, "There's a touch of paranoia in some of the commentary at the moment in respect of China."

Chinese Navy personnel aboard their ship during the recent visit to Sydney. (Image: AAP)

China has every reason to expect to be treated with respect. It is a world power. Apart from the period from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries, during which European powers treated China as a market to be pillaged and an economy to be gouged, China has been a world power for millennia.

We are not in a ‘playground competition’ with China. We are two partners seeking to improve the standard of living of our citizens and live in an Indo-Pacific region that chooses respect over sabre rattling and dialogue over bellicose rhetoric.

Paranoia is the last thing we need. I didn’t see anyone arguing against China taking part in Exercise Kakadu or the regular Operation Pandaroo. Nor should they. So why the sudden reaction to the visit of the Chinese navy?

A positive relationship with China is vital to our interests. Regular ship visits like last week’s should be welcomed not criticised.