On 17 November 2017, President Xi Jinping addressed the Federal Parliament in Canberra, Australia. It marked the highpoint of China-Australia relations. The Darwin Port had been leased to China for 99 years. Chinese tourists and Chinese students came to Australia in numbers. Exports of Australian beef and barley to China surged. But politics took over. Spurred on by Trump and the Five Eyes Network and the Henry Jackson Society, right wing political influences put Australia on a path towards confrontation with Beijing. Suddenly Canberra changed track and went onto the offensive and attacked China’ policies on the Uighurs, Taiwan, the S China Sea and Hong Kong. The Australians became an active associate of Trump’s policy of isolating China, de-coupling from China and painting the Peoples Republic of China as the bad boys of international diplomacy.
The dye is cast. The lines have been drawn. China has responded by going onto the offensive and in a set piece battle with China how many people seriously think that Australia will prevail.
Trump has gone, the Henry Jackson Society has no soldiers, and the Australian Government will feel the strong wind of isolation as China stands firm. Canberra is applying pressure to the State of Victoria to withdraw from its participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As above, the relationship between the two countries has been in decline since 2017 but the downward spiral has accelerated in recent months. Two issues stand out: first, the Australian call for an independent enquiry into the Covid-19 outbreak and Australian police raids on Chinese-Australians and the Chinese media in Australia over allegations of covert interference into domestic affairs. China has responded by slapping trade restrictions on Australian exports including wine, beef, timber, barley and coal.
Australian leaders used to say that Australia did not have to choose between the US and China – but it has chosen. By calling for an independent enquiry into Covid-19, Australia lined up with China’s most voiciferous critics, assumed that any China sponsored enquiry would be full of lies and mistruths. This was followed by attempts to limit Chinese investment in Australia. Prominent Australians including Tony Kevin, former Australian Ambassador to Poland and Cambodia are critical of Canberra’s hardening line and claim that the intelligence community have taken over foreign policy at the expense of diplomacy and commercial interests.
People say that criticising China’s human rights record is not allowed. Wrong – as former UK Prime Minister, Edward Heath, said it is not necessary to engage in megaphone diplomacy to make your point. If you want to embarrass China, even humiliate China with selective propaganda invective and then seek good trade relations you are on another planet. It does not work. Be low key and face to face and then be willing to listen to China’s defence – because they have a strong defence on all these issues including the Uighurs. But break with these long accepted norms of diplomatic encounter and go on to the PR offensive you must accept a stern rebuke and business consequences. In due course Australia will change. A new government with a policy of long term co-operation with China will eventually replace Scott Morrison. It will take time but Australia will find it is better to follow long term economic priorities than short term political prejudices.