Commentary |
4 December 2020

On China, Australia is left counting the cost

The Australian government’s approach to its biggest foreign policy challenge is not working. There needs to be less conflict and more statecraft. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

 

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

The Scott Morrison of foreign policy set pieces has largely been calm and statesmanlike, delivering in office a consistent set of messages about Australia’s diplomatic priorities.

Read back through his speeches, and the same themes recur, of the centrality of the US alliance, the importance of the Pacific, a constructive partnership with China and so on, laced with a pragmatic commitment to democratic values.

The one aberrant theme, Morrison’s complaint in a speech in late 2019 that “negative globalism” was crimping sovereign nations, has not been heard of since the arrival of COVID-19.

In between times, though, a less-measured Prime Minister emerges, no more so than this week as he denounced from a patchwork studio at The Lodge a Chinese government tweet depicting an Australian soldier threatening to slit the throat of an Afghan child.

Transmitted from one Canberra bubble to another, just down the road in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Morrison’s TV tirade seemed to work a treat. With state-media levels of conviction, journalists praised Morrison’s approach as an “absolutely” correct response that gave him a “moral” advantage over a now significantly “weakened” China.

So far, so good, at least as far as domestic politics goes. No Australian prime minister can go wrong in standing up both for the troops – even in the wake of the alleged SAS atrocities – and, seemingly these days, against Beijing as well.

But as with so much of China policy, the bigger question is obscured: whether the government’s approach to Australia’s biggest foreign policy challenge is working.

The question is more important than ever, as we can now count the cost in billions of dollars, in lost exports from barley, coal, wine, meat and other commodities, now sanctioned in various forms by Beijing.

Among the more hardline elements in Australia on China, even to raise trade in the current standoff is considered at best naive and at worst greedy and disloyal, as though national and economic security exist in distinct universes.

In private, some are willing the trade sanctions on. According to this argument, they act as a useful wake-up call for policymakers and business leaders who still need educating about Xi Jinping’s China. Pain now, they reason, is better than being exposed to even greater punishment later.

Has this been the calculation of Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Foreign Minister Marise Payne as they fashioned a tougher China policy over the last two years?

It certainly doesn’t look that way, as Morrison and his government have scrambled for months to signal to Beijing that they want to re-establish dialogue to discuss political and trade differences.

Containment camp

Any responsible government would do the same with so much at stake, especially at a moment when the Australian economy is clambering out of a deep recession.

As far back as July, Payne stood next to Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, in Washington and pointedly declined to endorse his strident anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rhetoric.

Beijing didn’t publicly acknowledge this display of independence on Australia’s behalf. They did, however, comment positively about Morrison’s November speech saying that Australia had never been in the “economic containment” camp on China.

Zhao says out aloud what many Chinese officials say or think in private, that Beijing has too long been subservient to western countries.

A revival of the bilateral relationship, however, looks further away than ever after this week’s clash over the tweet issued by China’s deputy foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian.

It is debatable whether Morrison as prime minister should have stooped to respond in person to a calculated provocation from an official way below his pay grade, even one as notorious as Zhao.

Morrison is not the first western leader to take the bait. Donald Trump castigated Zhao earlier this year after he propagated an internet conspiracy theory that COVID-19 had been brought to China by a US soldier attending a sports event in Wuhan.

China unplugged

The best way to think of Zhao is as China unplugged, or, more accurately, the ruling communist party unplugged.

Zhao says out aloud what many Chinese officials say or think in private, that Beijing has too long been subservient to western countries and too unwilling to hit back at their criticism.

Not all of his colleagues in the Foreign Ministry approve of his tactics. Many Chinese scholars lament how counterproductive this kind of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy has been for Beijing’s global standing.

But as a career move, Zhao’s positioning of himself as Beijing’s most aggressive diplomat seems to be working fine.

Zhao’s narky combativeness towards Beijing’s critics has made him a hero on the Internet at home. As things stand, he represents mainstream diplomacy in Xi’s increasingly powerful China.

In his self-styled role of Beijing’s troller-in-chief, Zhao was probably delighted to have a national leader snap back at him so directly. Predictably, Zhao’s colleagues doubled down and dismissed Morrison’s call for an apology.

Along for the ride was the Global Times, the CCP-owned tabloid, which rolled out familiar insults about Australia being at the bottom of the food chain of civilised nations and issued vague threats about the safety of Australian naval ships in the South China Sea.

But as a career move, Zhao’s positioning of himself as Beijing’s most aggressive diplomat seems to be working fine.

Zhao’s narky combativeness towards Beijing’s critics has made him a hero on the Internet at home. As things stand, he represents mainstream diplomacy in Xi’s increasingly powerful China.

In his self-styled role of Beijing’s troller-in-chief, Zhao was probably delighted to have a national leader snap back at him so directly. Predictably, Zhao’s colleagues doubled down and dismissed Morrison’s call for an apology.

Along for the ride was the Global Times, the CCP-owned tabloid, which rolled out familiar insults about Australia being at the bottom of the food chain of civilised nations and issued vague threats about the safety of Australian naval ships in the South China Sea.

The Chinese will revel in highlighting the alleged Afghanistan atrocities, blithely ignoring how they were uncovered by a free press and painstakingly documented in an official government report.

The allegations against the SAS are a handy rhetorical device for Beijing every time Australia criticises China’s human rights record.

Strategic use of anger

More importantly, they are a potent talking point for Beijing in dealing with Islamic states and leaders around the world, who question China’s incarceration of the Muslim-majority population in Xinjiang.

Malaysia recently began pushing back against Chinese demands that Uighurs be extradited back to China. Otherwise, Muslim-majority countries have stayed silent on the plight of the Uighurs.

Beijing will use any weapon in its arsenal – in this case, the behaviour of Australian troops in Islamic Afghanistan - to ensure others don’t follow Malaysia’s example.

Conversely, there is an argument in favour of Morrison’s personal intervention, as it instantly elevated the issue internationally and drew support for Australia from like-minded countries, like the US, New Zealand and France.

Beijing is a past master at making strategic use of anger, forcing countries on the defensive with the accusation that their actions have “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

Morrison showed others can play that game as well. Zhao went briefly back into his shell after Trump complained. Australia is not America, but perhaps Zhao will think twice about tweeting out similar images again.

The Foreign Ministry spent much of Wednesday explaining its use of the doctored image, and as the saying goes, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.

However Morrison and his ministers had handled Beijing in recent years, let alone recent weeks, it is unlikely that relations with China would be anything better than lukewarm.

With China looking to displace the US as the dominant power in Asia, Washington’s alliance partners like Australia are inevitably going to take positions which Beijing doesn’t like.

The same goes for issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Australia has an obligation to speak out about what is happening in both places.

Additionally, other points of stress are baked into the bilateral cake. To take a few examples, Australia is pursuing two cases involving Chinese-Australians under its foreign interference laws, something which has likely already prompted the detentions of Australians in China. Some Australian MPs will join an international campaign to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. And China is probably not done with its own trade sanctions against Australian imports.

Historic upheaval

The governments of Morrison, and Malcolm Turnbull before him, can claim credit for diplomatic advances aimed at strengthening Australia’s position in a region amid an historic upheaval.

The pending status of forces agreement with Japan, the Pacific step-up, a belated reengagement with south-east Asia, an intensifying strategic dialogue with Europe and the robust alliance with the US – all add up to a brave new world for Australian foreign policy.

But the natural stress in the relationship cannot camouflage the government’s numerous unforced errors which have given Beijing’s own hardliners the ammunition to make an example of Australia.

The tipping point was Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Bewilderingly touted as a diplomatic triumph at the time, it now looks ill-considered to have done on our own when multiple other countries would have joined us.

After the police raids in June on a NSW Labor MP and his staffer in a foreign interference investigation, Morrison spoke stridently to the press about how he wouldn’t “cop” outside meddling in local politics.

Morrison didn’t need to say anything, as the raids contained their own message. And to make an old-fashioned point, should a prime minister comment on a police investigation?

Even senior government figures were mystified in August by Frydenberg’s rejection of China Mengniu’s takeover of Lion Dairy. Not only does the company have zero strategic import, but a negotiated approval could have been used to manage diplomacy with Beijing.

Another opportunity was lost in October with Liberal Senator Eric Abetz’s demand of Chinese-Australians at a parliamentary committee that they denounce the communist party.

Instead of properly condemning this, government ministers repeated a robotic talking point about there being only one “loyalty test” and ignored the blatant racial profiling.

In all of this, spare a moment for businesses hit by the Chinese sanctions. They were encouraged by the government in 2015 to grab the benefits of the bilateral trade agreement, only to be sternly told now that their hard-earned success is a strategic liability and to suck it up.

The government’s hairy-chested rhetoric has flowed through to sections of the media that have turned China into a free-fire zone on a regular basis.

This week, The Courier Mail complained the decision of two Chinese cities to bid for the 2032 Olympics would “steal” the games from Brisbane. Quite how the Chinese can steal something from Brisbane that Brisbane doesn’t own was not explained.

None of this matters much in some quarters, because we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys, and everything proceeds from that.

But since the Australian government’s professed policy is to stabilise ties with China, maintain a mutually beneficial commercial relationship and still leave room for diplomatic manoeuvre, finding a way through the current mess is worth pursuing.

Australian government officials have talked up in private about the idea of mimicking Japan’s “Do More, Say Less” approach to managing China. The Japanese policy allows for conflict but also statecraft.

The current state of Sino-Japanese relations is probably best described as lukewarm. By Australian standards, that sounds pretty good.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and author of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers and Xi Jinping: The Backlash.