SMH & The Age: Australia’s China Challenge

The Australia-China relationship has always been difficult. Any Australian government, Liberal or Labor, must contend with the enduring structural reasons for this.

First is our robust alliance with America, given Beijing’s extensive covert, and now increasingly overt, strategic competition with Washington. It spans our region and the globe, across all domains – military, economic, technological, foreign policy and now, increasingly, ideological.

Second is the very nature of our political system. We are proudly a liberal democracy while China is a Marxist-Leninist state that for 70 years has brutally suppressed any internal dissent.

At the same time, China’s economy has powered much of Australia’s economic growth, employment and living standards over the last 20 years. And China is increasingly prepared to deploy its economic leverage to secure its wider objectives.

We are therefore in a more binary world. Contrary to the belief of some Australian ministers and their media supporters, we are not alone in facing these strategic dilemmas. Japan, another democratic US ally, faces a more acute challenge given its geographical proximity, trade dependency and active territorial disputes with China. So too does South Korea. Many of America’s NATO allies, including Norway and Canada, have spent years in the Chinese “sin bin” because of various human rights and Huawei-related ruptures.

Previous Australian Labor governments have also dealt with these dilemmas. Hawke incurred Beijing’s wrath over Tiananmen. Our Labor government provoked China’s objections over: our 2009 Defence White Paper calling out Chinese actions in the South China Sea; our initiation of the Australian Navy’s biggest expansion program since the war; the basing of US forces in Darwin; our rejection of China’s attempted takeover of Rio Tinto; our human rights activism in support of Tibet, Xinjiang and Chinese-Australian nationals; and our ban on Huawei involvement in the NBN.

Indeed, these actions contrast starkly with Liberal luminaries like Alexander Downer (later a Huawei board member) breaching US-Australian solidarity over Taiwan, Tony Abbott’s stunning agreement to lease the Port of Darwin to the Chinese, and Malcolm Turnbull’s efforts to overturn our government’s “Cold War” mentality towards Beijing, including reviewing our stance on Huawei.

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified, accelerated and now turbo-charged these dynamics. The uncomfortable truth for Beijing is that the international community deserves answers to legitimate questions about this virus, which has so far infected almost 5 million people, killed more than 320,000 and forced world governments to spend $US9 trillion (13 per cent of global GDP) on fiscal stimulus to stave off depression. These legitimate questions include China’s failure to close wildlife wet markets after the SARS epidemic in 2003, the failure to contain the virus locally early on; as well as Beijing’s dealings with the World Health Organisation in the critical weeks that followed. Obtaining answers to these questions will not exonerate the subsequent failure of governments, notably the US, to prepare properly once warnings were issued. But they will be fundamental to the world’s future dealings with China.

The Morrison government has boasted about its call for an “independent global investigation” into the origins and transmission of the virus. If Scott Morrison had been serious about this, rather than just domestic politics, he would have secured other major co-sponsoring states before he announced it. Because he didn’t, there was little muscle behind what could have been a genuinely robust initiative. It also would have made it harder for Beijing to single out Australia for retribution because there is strength in numbers.

Furthermore, zero thought was given to the inquiry’s machinery, except explicitly ruling out the WHO inquiring into itself because that would be a case of “poacher and gamekeeper”. Guess what; when Morrison finally hit the phones after his announcement, he found his unilateral “proposal” had little international traction. To save face, he has now swung in behind a pre-existing (and much weaker) European Union proposal to have the WHO organise its own inquiry with very soft terms of reference.

If you look at the actual operative clauses of the World Health Assembly resolution on COVID-19 they bear scant resemblance to Morrison’s initial proposal. Clause 9.6 refers to the “continuing work” of existing scientific bodies examining the “zoonotic origins of the virus and the route of its introduction to the human population” – no reference here to China, and certainly no reference to any new investigation. Then there is Clause 9.10’s reference to an investigation by the WHO itself “at the earliest appropriate moment” into the “lessons learned” and “experience gained” from the WHO’s handling of the crisis. Elsewhere in the resolution Australia, without qualification, commends the WHO for its work.

So this is what Morrison, supported by a gullible commentariat, now trumpets as the great success of his campaign for a “robust, independent global investigation” into the Chinese origins of the virus outside the WHO?

Quite aside from potentially letting China and the WHO off the hook, Morrison’s failure to build a diplomatic coalition early on has unnecessarily exposed Australian exporters to retaliation. As I have stated repeatedly, no degree of ham-fisted Australian diplomacy comes close to justifying the Chinese ambassador’s intemperate and unacceptable threats. However, the uncomfortable economic truth is that these threats happened to be real.

So what of the future? Seven years into this Liberal government, there is no evidence of a serious China strategy. Lots of tactics, but no strategy. China respects strength, not weakness. It also respects consistency.

So here are seven simple principles for the future. First, be unapologetic in our dealings with Beijing about the enduring nature of our US alliance. Second, be equally unapologetic about our support for universal human rights. Third, be unapologetic about vigorously prosecuting our bilateral economic interests with China, while also diversifying our trade relationships to the extent we can. Fourth, maximise our engagement with China through the G20 on global climate, financial and pandemic governance. Fifth, most importantly, we should build robust “coalitions of the policy willing” in Asia, Europe and elsewhere in areas where our interests are opposed to China’s. Sixth, policymakers should understand the difference between operational and declaratory policy – i.e. taking a tough line through our actions, as opposed to just mouthing off for the sake of it. And seventh, protect the Australian Chinese community from the sort of racial vilification that has been unleashed most recently.

The debate on Australia’s future China strategy will be hard. It won’t be aided by the politically driven McCarthyism of the Murdoch media, smearing anyone who dares to challenge Trump, Morrison and Peter Dutton’s wisdom as a panda-hugger.

The Murdoch media is rightly humiliated by its claims of a “Five Eyes” dossier that supported Donald Trump’s claim the virus originated among the “bat-men” and “bat-women” of a Wuhan laboratory (the Bat Cave, presumably?). Even The Australian has parted company with its stablemates on this, after the claims were rubbished by intelligence officials in this newspaper and others. But that won’t stop the Murdoch juggernaut rumbling on in support of Trump and his best buddy Morrison, or its campaign to delegitimise anyone who offers a reasoned alternative view. Indeed, Australia’s national security and economic interests on China demand a substantive strategy – not a media-driven three-ring circus.

First published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 May 2020.