Another own goal in Australia’s relations with China

Apr 25, 2021

The Federal Government is not providing a strategic narrative about its position towards China. Is it too cynical to suggest that is because a very large number of Australians now view China in such negative terms that “pushing back”, irrespective of the cost, is seen positively?

The Federal Government, as widely anticipated, has now overturned Victoria’s memorandum of understanding with China, which provided a broad non-binding framework for cooperation in Belt and Road Initiative projects. The government continues to insist that it wants a cooperative relationship with China.

Foreign Minister Maris Payne, in announcing the BRI decision, has said that Australia’s Foreign Relations bill (which provides the legal basis to overturn the MoU) does not target any single country; to demonstrate this, she also announced the overturning of two insignificant arrangements with Iran and Syria from 17 and 21 years ago respectively. Payne has also said she doesn’t expect any retaliation from China.

The Chinese Embassy, however, has described the decision as unreasonable and provocative, and bound to bring further damage to bilateral relations. The nationalistic Global Times in Beijing has foreshadowed serious consequences.

Is anyone confused with these contradictory messages? If you are, I can assure you that you’re in good company.

The difficult part to understand is that while Australia’s relations with China continue on a downward spiral, the Government is not providing a persuasive narrative about why it is allowing this to happen. It argues that Australia has done nothing wrong and offers only broad and mostly meaningless assertions about protecting our values and sovereignty, neither of which has ever been seriously threatened.

Payne declared Victoria’s MoU to be inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy and yet the Federal Government leaders, including former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and current PM Scott Morrison, have, in the past, expressed support for Australian participation in BRI projects.

How BRI threatens any Australian interest, given that any project in Australia will be rigorously subject to foreign investment and other laws, has never been explained.

And why all the fuss over Victoria’s MoU when any Australian company would be able to enter into BRI deals, subject to Australian laws, with or without the MoU?

Is it too cynical to suggest that the Government feels it has no need to provide a strategic narrative because, it seems, a very large number of Australians now view China in such negative terms that “pushing back”, irrespective of the cost, is seen positively? In other words, it’s seen as good short-term politics, especially as the federal Opposition has been effectively wedged into supporting the Government’s position.

Foreign policy strategy essentially involves the linking of national goals with national resources. And yet, the Australian government has never provided a serious narrative about its China strategy other than passing generalities about values and sovereignty.

Repeating over and over the mantra that we want cooperation with China while continuing to pursue measures that have the opposite impact lacks coherency. Unfortunately, in foreign relations, we find more often than not we must accept the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. But wishful thinking is not a strategy.

Our regional neighbours for the most part understand this; increasingly we are the regional outlier.

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