Cheng Lei’s release a win for diplomacy

Oct 20, 2023
6 November 2019; Cheng Lei, Anchor, CGTN Europe, on Centre Stage during day two of Web Summit 2019 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Make no mistake, had the Australian Government not changed last year, Chen Lei would still be languishing in her miserable detention cell, denied access to her children, relatives, and friends.

From the outset, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister made it clear that they would change the tone of the relationship with China which, by May last year, had sunk further into acrimonious exchanges, no official or only junior-level engagement for years, and which had relegated Australia as a diplomatic outlier, even among Australia’s ‘like-minded’ partners.

The Foreign Minister set a clear objective to ‘stabilise’ the relationship, as indeed she must in view of the mess she had inherited. Anticipating a change in government, Beijing began to signal diplomatically that it wanted to draw a line under the tit-for-tat hostility and turn a new page with Australia. It replaced its ambassador with the highly regarded and skilful, Xiao Qian. He was cross posted from Jakarta, a far more senior assignment than Canberra. A sequence of conciliatory statements from him and China’s official media ensued.

On coming to office, the Prime Minister imposed a high degree of discipline over his Cabinet. Though he left in place his predecessor’s key security advisers, he had no ‘wolverines’ on his backbench. Nor did he parade Australia either as a victim on the world stage or as being at the vanguard of ‘pushing back’ against China.

A feature of his government to now: only he and the Foreign Minister speak on China and the relationship; the Trade Minister only to specific matters, such as China’s unjustified trade measures against Australia; while the Defence Minister has become an oral contortionist when trying to avoid the word ‘China’ as he attempts, with little success, to justify Australia’s largesse towards the US military-industrial complex.

The previous government was so loose that it filtered into the bureaucracy. The Secretary of Homeland Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, who has now been stood aside pending an investigation into aspects of his leadership, freelanced on foreign policy matters, telling staff he heard the ‘beating drums of war’. It now seems, considering recent revelations, that he may have had other motives beyond exhorting Canberra’s national security fraternity to gird their loins for the coming battle with China, not that they have ever needed any encouragement on that one.

It remains a mystery that in Prime Minister Morrison’s assumption of ministries for himself, without the incumbent and legally responsible ministers’ knowledge, Foreign Affairs was not on the list. That could be because he and Dutton as Defence Minister had so comprehensively marginalised DFAT that it did not matter enough.

With most dramatis personae now gone from the stage, the Albanese government has reset and stabilised relations with China. It has responded positively to China’s overtures. The earliest and most valuable result from this has been the resumption of high-level contact between the two governments. Without this, as pointed out repeatedly by this column, Canberra had no means by which to engage China’s senior decision makers on behalf of Cheng Lei or any other Australians, including the business community.

In the rigid hierarchical bureaucratic system that is China’s government, key foreign and security policy decisions will ultimately be decided at the apex of power. It is something of an irony that those most critical of China’s authoritarian political system, and its supposed risk to everything Australia values, don’t seem to get that you need to engage with China at the most senior levels.

Albanese and Wong do get it. As they set about stabilising the bilateral relationship, they began engaging with senior levels of the Chinese system. Having changed the framework in which to advocate for the release of prisoners and for removal of unjustified trade barriers, they each have persistently, consistently and without bravado made the link that further improvement in the bilateral relationship was contingent on clearing away as many of these issues which the Australian public rightly views as egregious. The relationship is now likely to be ‘normalised’ following the PM’s visit later this year.

Following Cheng Lei’s release last week, some disingenuous backgrounding has been going on that the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had also been making representations on her behalf. If so, it is not unreasonable to ask: to whom? Especially given that all, except the most junior official contact, had been frozen by the Chinese side from before Cheng Lei’s disappearance.

Some remarks may have been made on the margins of other international meetings in passing, or to the Chinese Ambassador over canapes, but these are in no way equivalent to the hard yards of consistent and persistent diplomatic messaging.

What we have seen with Cheng Lei’s return to Melbourne are the priceless fruits of the practice of the art of diplomacy. Highly skilled diplomats, such as our outgoing Ambassador in Beijing, Graham Fletcher, supported by others with the confidence of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have demonstrated the immense value of diplomacy in serving Australia’s interests. Under Morrison, diplomacy had been crowded out by the hard heads of the security establishment because ministers were willing for it to be so.

While the Defence Minister, having imbibed Washington’s jungle juice, has been able to extract vast resources to pad out his portfolio, DFAT continues to be under resourced for its essential tasks, despite the government’s attempts to elevate ‘statecraft’ in its public rhetoric.

It is worth remembering that the military defends territory, as noble as that is, but it is only diplomacy that can protect and advance our values and interests, and more so in a much more contested world. As I argued in my 2020 book on China’s Grand Strategy, Australia faces a dystopian future with the end of the US dominated order. It will require a big diplomatic effort to navigate the new order.


First published in the Australian Financial Review October 17, 2023

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