A chronological sequence of the post-winter China panic with the spring thawing of Australia-China relations is presented. Media reports showed a definite attempt to improve Australia-China relations with commitments by PM Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and former PM Howard. How well can Australia play in the game in making friends with two countries which are currently fighting a trade Cold War and with the US having ambitions to contain China? The Chinese Australian community welcomes the thaw but would like to see the government consult the community on these sensitive international matters as well as taking positive steps to reverse the unintentional effects of China panic on citizens of Chinese descent.
7 Aug 2018: The end of the China panic could signify a thaw in frozen Australia-China relations when the former PM Turnbull made a conciliatory speech at the University of NSW saying China is not cold war Russia.
10 Oct 2018: With the change of Liberal leadership, PM Morrison told prominent Chinese business magazine Caixin that Australia will seek to work closely with the US and China despite the worsening trade war and because Australia has “independent relationships with both countries”. Morrison claimed that the 5G ruling (Huawei) was not directed at any country but was a decision made by Australia to protect her assets.
He praised China’s Belt & Road Initiatives (BRI) and at the same time supported the new US$60 billion infrastructure investment agency that appeared designed to counter China’s BRI financing in the Indo Pacific region. Is this an admission that Australia do not wish to take sides but support both initiatives?
9 Nov 2018: Australia resumed normal diplomacy with China after an annus horribilis for Australia. Marise Payne met with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi to repair the frozen relations which were hurting Australia and were caused by the Turnbull government. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was busy in Shanghai two days prior to the Payne visit.
2 Dec 2018: On the Labor side of foreign policy, former Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans urged Bill Shorten to move away from the US and was highly critical of the Coalition foreign policy. and included the following remarks:
- Australia should distance itself from the US;
- Australia should join China’s BRI;
- A stronger relationship with China does not mean Australia has to be Beijing’s ‘patsy’; and
- Australia should focus its efforts in SE Asia viz. Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.
2 Dec 2018: The media has not been too kind to PM Morrison with headlines saying “Once we were the laughing stock of the world, but now it’s worse”. PM Morrison has been criticised for his “happy talk” while abroad when he said that Australia won’t have to choose between China and America. Prior to the G20 summit in Argentina, one would have hoped that PM Morrison would at least secure a dialogue with President Xi or his delegates. However, Australia does not feature well in the G20 summit.
8 Dec 2018: The SMH reported a high level meeting in Beijing between Australia and China. The Australian delegation led by former PM John Howard had annual talks with the Chinese delegation at Zhongnanhai Leaders compound in Beijing. The Australian delegation later met with China’s most senior diplomat, Politburo member Yang Jiechi.
Two interesting observations can be made from this report. First, Yang Jiechi, a young Politburo member and top adviser on US matters for China, indicated that Beijing is placing the mending of Australia-China relations as of high importance compared to the attitude of the last 12 months. Secondly, the matter of the high profile arrest of Madam Meng, the CFO of Huawei, dominated the meeting between the Australian and Chinese delegations. This could be a curly question for Australia. Although we are not privy to the conversation, the raising of this controversial topic could be designed to find out where Australia stands on this matter. Knowing Australia is a member of the Five Eyes that banned Huawei and raising the matter at the meeting is a cultural way of saying “we know what you are but we are willing to accommodate you if you stay out of the controversy”. This is only one of several cultural interpretations.
Choosing former PM John Howard from the Liberals is putting the best foot forward as the Chinese do respect the old PM who managed to maintain relations with China and the US. His acknowledgment that Chinese imports from Australia saved the country from recession in 2007 and the importance of Australia-China trade does earn him much respect from the Chinese.
Despite these conciliatory remarks and visits by John Howard and Marise Payne, most Chinese Australians are not naïve enough to believe that what you read in the newspapers is all true. Despite these moves to improve the relationship with China, there have been no moves to placate the fears of Chinese Australians living in Australia who have to bear the brunt of the stress and mental torture of the China panic.
Chinese Australians want our national leader to stop the spread of xenophobia, hate speech, racial vilification, racial violence, the unintended consequence of the FITs legislation and above all to stop questioning our loyalty to Australia.
Why doesn’t the government consult the 1.2 million Chinese Australians about improving Australia-China relations and the equally important task of improving the relationship between the government and her citizens of Chinese origin?
The use of social media, also echoed by Prof Wanning Sun on the last Victorian election, is a tool of persuasion to get domestic policy correct as Chinese Australians are part of the fabric of Australian multicultural society.
The polls for the government are not looking good and if the poll prediction is true, then Senator Penny Wong will be leading the next delegation to China for talks.
Dr Anthony Pun is the National President of the Chinese Community Council of Australia.