A tit for tat with no end point (AFR Sep 10, 2020)

A get-tough policy on China with no apparent goal has left Austral as the only developed country with no media representation in the country.

As Australia descends further into a costly and increasingly futile tit-for-tat fight with China, one is reminded of the Black Knight in the 1975  Arthurian spoof Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.  Having lost all his limbs in a sword fight with Sir Galahad and with blood spurting from his wounds, the torso of the Black Knight shouts to the departing King Arthur: ‘Chicken! . . .  Come back here and take what’s coming to you’.

The slapstick, Keystone Cops-like, episode of the withdrawal of two Australian journalists is the latest round.   What appears to be coordinated, deliberately clumsy, appearances by police at the journalists’ respective apartments in Beijing and Shanghai bear no resemblance to the stealthy, well-honed, skills of China’s security agencies that  ‘disappeared’ Australian news anchor Cheng Lei.

In Cheng’s case it was at least 48 hours before friends started to notice that she had dropped off from Wechat.  It was sometime later before the Embassy, which had begun making its own inquiries, was advised of her detention.  The seriousness of her situation is underlined by the secrecy of how authorities have and continue to deal with her case.  But more on Cheng Lei later.

Turning up uninvited at midnight at a farewell party of one of the journalists is hardly the way politically sensitive arrests are made in China, especially when an audience of potential witnesses is present.  Nor is requesting the person of interest provides the police with a telephone number or escape to Australian diplomatic missions. China is a ‘surveillance state’.

The buffoonery is but one of the unexplained aspects of these events.  But it would seem a highly publicised ‘escape’ from China was the intention. We can only speculate as to why.

The journalists’ confirm the Embassy had warned them over a week ago they should leave China as they might be detained.  If the concern was motivated by Cheng’s detention, then it is a puzzle as to why the Embassy appears to have waited some two weeks to warn them.

Rumours have been circulating in parts of the Chinese community in Sydney for some weeks that at the time of the raids on NSW Upper House member, Moselmane, in late June, ASIO had also raided the premises of mainland China media representatives in Australia.  The Chinese journalists were warned by ASIO not to make any public comment.

On Tuesday evening in Beijing, the officially sanctioned Global Times in English and the official government wire service, Xinhua, in Chinese both ran stories on the ASIO raids on the Chinese journalists in Sydney.  Xinhua reports that journalists were questioned for ‘several hours’ and digital devices and hand-written notebooks were seized.  The Global Times claimed that Australia was ‘waging an intensifying espionage offensive against China.’

Whatever the truth, and how it relates to the police visiting our Australian journalists, it is all part of the escalating tit-for-tat retaliation from both sides for slights, real or imagined.

Following the furious reaction from Beijing to the Australian Prime Minister’s call for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19, Canberra decided to hit back at China.  Its provocations to be met with retaliation.

Further tightening on foreign investment rules, and increased spending on data and cybersecurity, and ramped up naval exercises in the South China Sea, each pointedly directed at China have followed China’s threats to trade.

Late last month, the Treasurer blocked the takeover of a Japanese-owned dairy company, Lion Nathan, by Chinese-owned Mengniu on ‘national interests’ grounds. Read national security.  It is also intriguing that not only nationality of the owner of cows is a risk, but that cows have become strategic assets.

The next day, China’s Deputy Ambassador gave what was seen as a largely conciliatory speech at the National Press Club.  The following day, the Prime Minister announced a clumsy policy to review all agreements states and universities have made with foreign powers and to ‘rip them up’ if not in the national interest.

Although aimed primarily at the Victorian Premier and his defiance of Canberra for signing an inconsequential, non-binding, MOU on Belt and Road Cooperation, the announcement was also calculated to hit back at China.

At the time, the Government knew that Cheng Lei had disappeared and, if the Chinese media reports of the past 24 hours are correct, that the Government had authorised ASIO to raid China’s media outlets in Australia.

We now await the Australian Government’s next act of retaliation.  Meanwhile the Australian Foreign Minister has needlessly warned that all Australians are at risk in China.  It is not hard to imagine how Beijing will react.

The trouble with the simple-minded ‘let’s get tough on China approach’ is that it is a policy without any strategy, a triumph of tactics.  It is not known what is the endpoint.  Nor when will victory be declared or when the cost of pursuing tit-for-tat becomes so heavy that a change, of course, becomes inevitable.

Unfortunately, Australia has an Opposition at present that is complaisant and supine and ducks challenging the Government or asking questions about the behaviour of ASIO and the spreading secrecy that is surrounding its activities.

Other Australian journalists are working for foreign agencies in China.  Australia, however, is now the only developed country that has none of its own news networks present.  Most other countries find ways to manage China’s rise without harming their own interests.  Australia is still to discover how.

As for Cheng Lei, the Global Times has hinted darkly that it is something to do with national security.  This is often an ambit allegation while investigations are continuing. It is best for now to treat Cheng’s situation and the flight of the Australian journalists as separate, and not part of the tit-for-tat retaliation.  But Cheng’s circumstances are not helped by the poisonous state of bilateral relations.

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Geoff Raby AO is an Australian economist and diplomat. He served as the Australian Ambassador to the People's Republic of China from February 2007 until August 2011.

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