I dealt with China for most of the ten years I worked for the British Foreign Office from 1998. The one conclusion I drew from my experience over those years was that it didn’t take much to stumble into complexity. Britain and China have a vast historic hinterland. In 1839, British forces inflicted the first Opium War on China, and British politicians enforced the unequal treaties which ushered in what some Chinese call to this day ‘the century of humiliation’. In the hundred years that followed, Britain continued meddling and became involved in issues from Tibet to Hong Kong, building up a fund of resentment on the Chinese side that continues to pay back returns to the current day.
Australia’s relations with China are free of this harsh background noise. They are mercifully unstained by unpleasant memory or contentious history. As Andrew Charlton writes in his essay ‘Dragon’s Tail: The Lucky Country after the China Boom’, it has culminated in two decades of almost sublime simplicity. Since the 1990s, put bluntly, China has made us rich. From an indifferent twentieth century, in which the overall trajectory of the Australian economy was either flat, or downwards, the resource hunger of a booming China pumping, growing at an average rate of ten per cent each year, has lifted Australia to the richest per capita of major developed economies.