The best reading on the state of Australia-China relations is in documents we can’t see. That is, in the cables sent from Canberra to their capitals by ambassadors of Asian nations.
They would report how Australia now has no official relationship with China- not even enough for us to press a firm objection to Beijing’s abandonment of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy. They would report that the bilateral is in its worst repair since diplomatic relations opened in 1972.
It’s likely they are also detailing Australian unease that US farmers could pick up our markets for not just barley, beef, wine and dairy. And that the Chinese might quite relish accrediting Colorado abattoirs and Inviting in California winemakers to supply their consumers.
Right now Japan, India and Singapore- to settle on three- would see Australia’s position as vindication of their own more cautious diplomatic positioning in US-China tensions.
None acts the role of a deputy sheriff to the US as Australia does so assiduously.
Japan had to accept the US president could lurch in any direction in his dealings with North Korea and Prime Minister Abe had to have his own line of communication with Beijing. The freeze came to an end. Its leaders meet and talk.
India is delighted to occupy what its diplomats call a “sweet spot,” courted by China and the US. Delhi views this as a fulfilment of its rising importance and triumph of its diplomacy. It is inconceivable India should be drawn into neo-containment in East Asia even though two Canberra think tanks most devoutly wish it.
Singapore would see Australia’s predicament as perfect vindication of its own cordial relationship with China even though it’s come at the cost of US grumbling.
Meanwhile Canada and New Zealand are watching closely to see if US farmers swagger into the markets that Australia loses as a result of doing, once too often, our deputy sheriff party trick.
When I was foreign minister I remember an exchange on this very subject in 2013 with Kurt Campbell, then Hillary Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific. I mentioned Julia Gillard had completed a successful visit to China, the main purpose of which was to have the Chinese accept guaranteed annual meetings with Australian leaders. That’s fine by us, said Kurt Campbell. Australia can be “the most desired girl on the block.” That is, courted by the US and China.
To be sure the US was to become more adversarial as China’s growth surged. But, given Australia’s record as ally, it would have to accept that Canberra would always want a policy of pragmatic engagement with China and decline to make ideological antagonism the hallmark of its dealings with Beijing.
Deft Australian diplomacy might have pulled this off.
Instead, in early 2017 to appease the new Trump administration, then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was warning China it could never be great unless it became a democracy. And the then-Minister Malcolm Turnbull, goaded by his zealous new advisor John Garnaut, urged a US military build-up in the region to our north.
In late 2017 Turnbull was stifling his giggles as he chose to parody Chairman Mao- even attempting a skit in Mandarin- when he should have stuck to the departmental script. It wasn’t what we did that became the irritant- the anti-foreign influence legislation was defensible- but the way every message was sharpened by Turnbull’s office to lob an ideological grenade in China’s direction. “This is not directed at any power but at protecting Australian sovereignty,” is how almost any other PM would have pitched it.
In August 2018 Australia was entitled to exclude Huawei if we believed it a threat to the resilience of our communications. But Turnbull walked from the cabinet room to his suite to breathlessly report the decision to Trump, turning the issue into one of alliance loyalty not routine protection of our security- the way Japan and New Zealand handled their Huawei exclusions.
That we could only see China through a Washington lens and not the lens of national interest was confirmed when Joe Hockey, the then-ambassador to the US, was caught urging the US to not back down in its trade dispute with China. Wiser heads in the government, including the prime minister, made clear that tearing up trade rules was not in Australia’s interest.
That our Washington ambassadors get light headed about acting deputy sheriff was on view this month when current ambassador Arthur Sinodinos took it upon himself to assert Australia wants America to “push back” against China. So we use our US ambassador to add artistic flourishes to our China bilateral. Or were we sending a message that our China policy is whatever it takes to tickle Mike Pompeo?
What other US ally choses to render itself a cheerleader? Are we altogether comfortable this is our happiest international personality?
Coalition backbenchers had been studying the anti-Chinese script acted out by Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz as they rehearse their lines for future presidential primaries. The backbenchers find this easy publicity and it unites a fractious government.
If half a dozen members of China’s National People’s Congress had chosen to go feral with anti-Australian commentary- hitting us with White Australia or misuse of anti-dumping- the nationalistic outrage in Australia would have bordered wartime hysteria.
More confident foreign ministers might have imposed their own interpretation on the relationship, among other things invoking the pragmatism of John Howard. With China, he says, less heated rhetoric helps and he cleaved to this in his April 26 interview in The Australian. But without any conceptual framework etched by Bishop or Payne the view that China had to be seen as cold war threat filled the air, with Hastie and Hockey even throwing China’s way that lamest of cliches, Nazi-World War II analogies.
Those who don’t know history should be required to get a licence before invoking it. China was doing battle with the axis forces four years before we and bled up to 30 million lives between 1937 and 1945, soaking up Japanese divisions that might otherwise have been let loose in New Guinea.
A generous reference like that, easy to imagine coming in any Prime Ministerial speech from Whitlam to Abbott, is ready anytime to be picked up by an Australian leader- not least to balance a pointed diplomatic criticism that has to be directed Beijing’s way.
Is it beyond our wit to pursue pragmatic, national interest-based China engagement without sacrificing any Australian value? To be creative middle-power, or deputy sheriff? The diplomatic cables out of Canberra back to Asian capitals are likely saying we’ve got some part of this business pretty wrong.