From 2004 to 2014, I ran a program on behalf of Sydney University to send highly-motivated Australian media students to English-language newspapers around Asia. They were to work as professional journalists, researching and publishing their own stories about local events. On return to Australia, their experience was designed to equip those who joined Australian media outfits with a sophisticated insight of their host countries. Funding came from the Myer Foundation, then DFAT.
Around 120 students joined the program from five Australian universities. They went to newsrooms in Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and as far afield as New Delhi and Abu Dhabi. And with the approval of the Chinese Government, several went to Beijing to work as journalist in the Beijing Review, in the highly-influential news agency Caixin Global, and in the Global Times, a daily tabloid under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party.
The hoped-for result? A solid cadre of young Australians knowledgeable about politics and social standards around Asia, a welcome addition to Australia’s professional journalist ranks when they came home.
I have lost track of many of these students, but I wonder whether any of them, especially the three from Beijing, joined the Canberra Press Gallery. For if they had, they would probably have had the sense either to challenge, or at least not join, the braying mob who aggressively attacked Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian during his appearance at the Canberra Press club on Wednesday 10 August.
It is a proven tactic of diplomats faced with stressed bilateral relationships to focus on what may be achieved to improve things before tackling harder controversial stuff. But the Canberra journalists preferred a fight. They were not interested in getting the Ambassador to amplify his initial conciliatory remarks about re-setting the bilateral relationship. They wanted a headline, one to fuel the current anti-Chinese rhetoric prevailing in Canberra. They backed the ambassador into a corner about China’s intentions over Taiwan. Of course he was officially bound to say that his government included the possibility of using force in absorbing Taiwan into Greater China, but in doing so, he lost the chance of having a constructive dialogue with the press about what might be done to improve things between our two countries.
How Sino-Australian relations have deteriorated! As recently as 2017, various Australian foreign policy think-tanks were hosting a series of visits by Chinese official and academic delegations, enthusiastically discussing everything from fishing rights to the nine-dash line of demarcation in the South China Sea. Now we are seen in Beijing as little more than an American satrap, while the accepted view of China in Canberra is as an arrogant predator bent on destroying ‘freedom’ in Asia and further afield.
The rot in bilateral relations began in 2018 when Prime Minister Turnbull rejected Huawei’s application to operate its 5G network in Australia, the first country to do so. It was a striking example of Australia’s insecurity when compared, for example, with the UK’s nonchalance in allowing China’s General Nuclear Power Group to join the French in financing two massive new nuclear power complexes in Britain, one called Hinkley Point C in Somerset, the other, Sizewell C, in Sussex. If foreign control of a nation’s communications poses a problem for the host country, how much worse could be foreign control of its nuclear assets and power grids?
Fanning the flames of Australian distrust of China is an increasing amount of literature attributing the worst possible motives to China. Among the latest is a newly released book Danger on Our Doorstep written by Jim Molan, a Liberal Party Senator and former senior ranking officer in the ADF. Molan posits the likelihood of a second Pearl Harbour, a surprise overwhelming Chinese missile attack on United States bases in the western pacific, as an overture to an armed invasion of Taiwan. He goes on to say that Australia will inevitably be drawn into the conflict on the side of the United States, but unless it acts with improbable speed in acquiring medium and long-range missiles, Australia will have no credible force of its own to defend the country if and when the United States, licking its wounds, retreats to the safety of the American mainland.
Relevant to Molan’s Pearl Harbour speculation is China’s well-executed live-fire exercises around Taiwan in response to US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s ill-judged visit to Taiwan in August.
This response appears to have jolted Australian politicians, even those on the hawkish right, to take another, more sober, look at the situation. On 11 August, Opposition leader Dutton said on Radio National ‘I want there to be respect for the current situation and nobody’s advocating anything different from that. I support this entire situation as it is at the moment. I don’t support independence (for Taiwan). I don’t support the breaking away. I respect China’s position in relation to Taiwan. But I don’t want to see conflict.’ Meanwhile, former Labor minister Kim Beazley in The Saturday Paper on 13-19 August argued that the Chinese had given the situation over Taiwan a lot of thought and were about to give it a lot of practice. Sensibly, he said Australia needed to find room for statecraft with China, even though there may not be room for any.
Mr Beazley could have added that there is an urgent need to consult closely with neighbouring states as to how they handle their often difficult relationships with China – to accommodate where possible, to resist where necessary. Vietnam and Singapore in particular should be included.
As political tensions rise, significant lines of communication remain open among Australian think-tanks and a number of Chinese counterparts.