Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s resolve
in the face of pressure from Beijing is being sorely tested
By Daniel Hurst / The Guardian
When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with about 10 of his hawkish backbench colleagues for a “fireside chat” at Parliament House in Canberra in the middle of May, he had a clear message: Australia would stand up for its values and not blink in the face of pressure from China.
That conversation took place a few days after China launched the first of a series of trade strikes against Australia, imposing punishingly high tariffs on barley exports.
The backbenchers were pleased with Morrison’s resolute tone.
Illustration: Mountain People
However, the prime minister’s resolve is increasingly being tested in the face of what observers have called the lowest point in Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner in decades.
Those tensions were on full display last week after Canberra helped two Australian journalists flee China after sheltering them in diplomatic compounds for several days and negotiated to remove a ban on their exit if they agreed to be interviewed by Chinese authorities.
There are no longer any accredited Australian journalists for Australian media in China.
The episode triggered anger from Beijing, which revealed that Australian security officials investigating alleged foreign interference had also questioned four Chinese journalists from state media outlets in June.
The Australian government has also canceled two Chinese academics’ visas over security concerns.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Australia of displaying “superiority, hypocrisy and double standards.”
It has become an open question in foreign policy circles: Has Australia, a middle power that is heavily economically reliant on a rising China, but retains a strong security alliance with the US, miscalculated in its handling of the relationship?
Some analysts certainly hold that view, but others see it as important to hold firm, given the increasingly assertive positions taken by China under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). The views do not cut neatly along party lines.
“If there is a China strategy, I’m not sure what it is and I actually think the China strategy is lurching from one thing to another,” one backbencher from the ruling Liberal Party said.
However, an opposition Labor Party lawmaker said: “I think it’s a lot more coherent than what it looks like.”
While Labor has sought to maintain bipartisanship on foreign policy, it has accused Morrison and senior ministers of failing to show leadership in publicly setting out the terms of Australia’s relationship with China, leaving a void filled by outspoken backbenchers.
Coalition backbencher George Christensen, for example, has accused China of “economic infiltration” and committing a “bastard act” by punishing Australian exporters, and thundered about summoning the Chinese ambassador to a parliamentary inquiry.
Liberal Australian Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has echoed US President Donald Trump’s language in talking about the “Wuhan virus,” and wants Australia to “decouple” economically from China and seek reparations.
Those making the most forthright public comments — such as Christensen and Fierravanti-Wells — were not invited when the Morrison organized the fireside chat on May 12.
Those invited included Australian Parliament Intelligence Committee Chair Andrew Hastie and Australian Senator David Fawcett, who heads the Parliament Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Others were Australian representatives Tim Wilson, Dave Sharma and Vince Connelly, and senators James Paterson, Sarah Henderson and Eric Abetz, as well as Jason Wood, a junior minister.
Morrison said that he knew the group had a strong interest in the China issue and he wanted to give them an insight into his thinking.
He was joined by Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, who angered the Chinese government several weeks earlier by calling for an independent international inquiry into the origins and early handling of COVID-19.
The message from the backbenchers was to congratulate Morrison and Payne for taking a stand on the inquiry.
“Well done,” one said. “That was a proud moment for Australia.”
They were also pleased that the government had declared it would not succumb to “economic coercion,” after China’s ambassador in late April warned that a souring of ties might prompt Chinese to stop buying Australian beef and wine, or visiting Australia for tourism or university.
Chinese authorities had already announced that they were proposing an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley imports, something that would wipe out the most important market for that product. Days later those tariffs were locked in.
China has also suspended import permits for some beef processing plants and launched a trade investigation into Australian wine.
Morrison told the backbenchers that he regularly thought about the issues at stake in the China relationship, but was somewhat constrained in what he said publicly, because the Chinese Communist Party grades comments based on seniority.
“He really emphasized the importance of being consistent, being clear, being unapologetic for asserting our interests,” a person who was at the meeting said.
In line with the coalition’s free-speech traditions, there was certainly no impression given that backbenchers needed to stop their public commentary altogether, although they were urged to stay in touch with officials — an implicit request that any remarks be well-informed.
FRICTION WITH BEIJING
Under the leadership of Xi — who took over as president in 2012 and later pushed through the abolition of term limits — China has become more assertive and authoritarian.
The increasing militarization of the South China Sea, the crackdown on Uighurs and other minority groups in the Xinjiang region, and the imposition of a wide-reaching National Security Law in Hong Kong have alarmed Australia and its international partners.
“This has been some years in the making,” said Richard Maude, a former senior official at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), who in 2017 headed a task force involved in preparing a foreign policy white paper for the government of then-Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“It’s really been a series of policy decisions that Australian governments have taken because of the way in which China is changing,” Maude said.
The Australian government’s decision under Turnbull to ban “high-risk” vendors, such as the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, from its 5G network remains a source of friction with Beijing.
Turnbull’s 2017 laws against foreign interference — driven by security concerns about the Chinese government’s covert activities in Australia — were used in this year’s investigation into alleged secret attempts by the Chinese government to influence a New South Wales Labor politician, which led to the questioning of four journalists with three Chinese state media outlets in late June.
Those journalists have since returned to China, with the Chinese foreign ministry accusing Australia of “damaging mutual trust.”
Chinese authorities have also defended their “lawful investigation” into Cheng Lei (成蕾) — an Australian citizen and journalist for Chinese state media who was taken into secretive detention in China last month.
WHAT IS THE STRATEGY?
Morrison has publicly said that China’s economic growth is a net positive for Australia and the region — but he has also said that Australia would stand up for its sovereignty and not “trade away” its values.
While the Trump administration has sought to contain China’s rise, the Australian position does not champion containment.
However, Morrison has sought to deepen alliances within the region as a counterweight to Beijing’s growing hegemony and to assert Australia’s role in the Pacific.
The Morrison doctrine is understood to be “strategic patience,” with the government ultimately hoping that China understands Australia would consistently stand up for its values and interests, and would not be deterred by economic pressure.
However, that realization has not happened yet. Senior Australian ministers have been blocked in their attempts to arrange talks with their Chinese counterparts. The diplomatic freeze has caused frustration in Canberra. Both sides say they want a mutually beneficial relationship, although they sharply differ on what that means.
“Australia’s headache is not just that China has become much more powerful, but also that it has become more authoritarian, ideological and nationalist,” said Maude, who is now a senior fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute. “This will keep driving a clash of interests and values.”
THE COVID-19 INQUIRY
One of the decisions that infuriated the Chinese government was when Payne went on Australian Broadcasting Corp’s Insiders program on April 19 to publicly call for an independent global investigation into the origins and early handling of COVID-19.
Wang Xining (王晰寧), the deputy head of the Chinese embassy in Australia, last month told reporters that Chinese people had seen the inquiry call as “shocking,” because it seemed to single out China at a time when Wuhan had just come out of a restrictive lockdown.
Allan Behm, the head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, is critical of Australia for pushing for the inquiry without China’s input.
“How do you think the United States would feel if somebody were to jump up and say we need an independent international inquiry into how badly President Trump has mishandled the coronavirus leading to nearly 200,000 American deaths? Everybody would think that was a very high-handed thing to do,” Behm said.
Despite the backlash, China ended up supporting the EU-drafted, Australia-backed, heavily negotiated motion that sailed through the World Health Assembly the following month.
However, the diplomatic dispute shows no signs of abating.
The key decisions affecting the relationship with China are made by the national security committee of Cabinet, chaired by Morrison. Apart from Payne, the committee brings together the ministers for defense, home affairs and finance, along with the treasurer and the attorney general.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader Michael McCormack, whose party seeks to represent farmers who might bear the brunt of trade tensions, also has a seat at the table.
The hardening outlook toward China has sparked debate about whether the hawks have taken over Australia’s foreign policy framework.
Australian Department of Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo rejected that view as simplistic.
He said that the national security committee makes each decision on its merits.
Other influential figures include Payne’s hawkish chief of staff Justin Bassi, who was previously at the Australian Office of National Intelligence and is a former national security adviser to Turnbull.
Morrison’s own team of advisers includes Australian National Security Adviser Michelle Chan, a former diplomat who served as ambassador to Myanmar, and Cabinet Secretary Andrew Shearer. Shearer is a long-time foreign policy hawk who was a national security adviser to former Australian prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott.
He has previously written that “China’s authoritarian leaders have no respect for weakness and are quick to pocket gratuitous concessions.”
The DFAT, traditionally a voice for cautious diplomacy, also appears to have hardened its assessment of trends in the China relationship.
DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson, who was ambassador to China from 2011 to 2015, told the Australian that Beijing’s more assertive approach to diplomacy had undermined trust and Australia must hold firm because “the institutions we take for granted … really are at stake now.”
There is no shortage of advice for the government about how to manage the turbulence: Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said to put down the megaphone; Turnbull said not to bow to the “confected outrage that you regularly see from Beijing.”
However, there is no serious doubt about the shifting power balance in the region.
China’s power and influence is likely to continue to grow relative to both the US and Australia, Maude said.
“So the best time to put in place policies that respond to some of the particular challenges that China throws up is now,” Maude added. “It’s likely to be harder and more costly — economically and politically — if we try to do this further down the track.”
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