Australia has more to lose in a human rights ‘face off’ with China

Mar 17, 2021

China is stepping up human rights accusations against Australia following numerous condemnations Australia has made on the same grounds. Before intensifying criticisms of China’s human rights, Australia should recognize that this can be a double-edged sword.

On Friday 12 March, China and several other countries issued a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva charging Australia with human rights abuses on several grounds. These included the immigration detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where medical conditions were inadequate: “a large number of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers have been detained over a long period of time or even indefinitely, and their human rights have been violated”.

The statement also reraises the issue of war crimes in Afghanistan, including those against children.  Neither the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade nor the press took much notice. Perhaps they did not take the accusations seriously or they were more interested in other things. It was a week that led on to an unprecedented Labor Party landslide victory in Western Australia and national women’s marches for justice. The Morrison government sank to lows so serious that, but for the ineffectiveness of the Federal Opposition, one wondered how long it could last.

One of the matters included in China’s accusation against Australia was racism. According to the report in Global Times (13 March): “The joint statement also expressed concern over the growing phenomenon of racial discrimination in Australia, the increase in violence against women and the unprotected rights of indigenous people in the country, calling on Australia to effectively protect human rights.” This may give a glimpse into how other countries see Australia’s politics but is also a comment on the unfortunate, unfair and well documented increase in suspicion against Chinese people.

Earlier in March, the Newsline Institute for Strategy and Policy, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., claimed as independent, issued a devastating report on Xinjiang charging China as responsible for genocide. I am not going over that ground again here; but note that this institute has itself been accused of links with the Muslim Brotherhood and being anything but independent. The Biden Administration already thinks of China as guilty of genocide while both the Canadian and Dutch parliaments have reached a similar conclusion.

In fairness, it must be added that Australia has refused to follow suit. On Monday 15 March, the Australian Senate rejected a motion by China hawk Senator Rex Patterson that condemned China for genocide in Xinjiang. Moreover, although although she considers China guilty of serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang, even forced labour, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has declined to go down the road of using the term genocide. On 1 March she said that Australia had “a slightly different approach to that turn of phrase” from countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. She has not so far indicated a change of mind on that. I disagree strongly with her in singling out China out for blame on the issue of forced labour but give her credit for resisting the tag of “genocide”.

Meanwhile, on 11 March, China concluded its annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. The Western media noted only that the NPC had passed a law limiting election to the Hong Kong legislature, which almost all interpreted as the end of democracy there. Chinese news outlets took the position that the vote was justified because the need for China’s national stability was paramount.

Senator James Paterson, a leader in attacking China, has arranged for Hong Kong’s anti-China activist Ted Hui to settle in Australia. Paterson responded to China’s consequent irritation with a reminder that immigration is entirely Australia’s affair. Although right, he should acknowledge that this argument is double-edged. It is after all the same argument China uses against accusations of human rights.

The NPC also took up several other issues. Perhaps the most important was another five-year plan, emphasizing self-sufficiency in technology. This follows American bans on items essential for the development of communications and other technology and suggests that Chinese leaders think the country must rely on its own technology or it will fall behind in a race it appears to be winning at the moment. At the NPC meeting, Premier Li Keqiang officially declared that China’s economy would grow by 6 per cent or more in 2021, a prediction commentators did not expect.

The NPC also considered the enormously important issue of conquering COVID-19. China continued to press for a cooperative world-wide effort.

Two points are interesting here. One is that China has been in the forefront of delivering cheap or free vaccines throughout the world, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but even parts of Europe. Early in February, French President Emmanuel Macron said that China’s vaccine diplomacy was “a little bit humiliating” for Western countries, because it was more efficient.

Secondly, when the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Australia, India, Japan and the United States), met virtually on 12-13 March, a key agenda item was to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy and technology. Although they decided greatly to expand their aid, my own view is that the richer countries have been very mean in the distribution of vaccines. It’s reasonable for governments to look after their own people, but China has been much more generous and equitable in its attitude and behaviour towards the rest of the world. I think the rich world would better to cooperate with China, rather than combatting it.

Though the Quad virtual meeting got a good deal of publicity, another quite important meeting has received very little so far. On 18 March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan meet in Alaska with Chinese State Councillor and top foreign affairs official Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The meeting will be face-to-face, not virtual, and there is symbolic importance in its being the first actual encounter between senior officials of the still new Biden Administration and China.

How far they will get in solving the many difficulties presently confronting the US and China is difficult to say. There could be progress in issues like climate change and trade, with potential for more. However, there are also problems. The Chinese regard it as a “strategic dialogue”, but the Americans do not. Blinken has already said he wants to push American condemnation of China on the Xinjiang issue, but the Chinese representatives will refuse to discuss this. They say it is no business of the United States, and do not recognize any American right to police the world’s human rights.

What all this amounts to for Australia-China relations is that a bleak situation is still worsening. For the time being, each country appears to have given up on the other and popular support in each for the other is on the wane. Morrison is most intent on trying to solve domestic problems but seems to see the way forward in international relations in opposing China. There’s some hope for an improvement in US relations with China over the next couple of years, and it’s not too late for Australia to start mending relations with China. Australia has more to lose than China, but time will not be waiting for us.

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