China diplomat urges end to ‘confrontation’ (AFR Oct 5, 2020)

One of China’s top diplomats has called for an end to ‘‘confrontation and abusive language’’ in increasingly hostile exchanges between Australia and China, saying the relationship can be salvaged through better communication by both countries.

She blamed the Australian media for creating an ‘‘unfriendly atmosphere’’ and stirring up anti-China rhetoric.

Fu Ying, China’s former ambassador to Australia and an influential figure in Beijing, also said China had a huge demand for Australia’s resources, that Australian wine remained popular with Chinese consumers and it was in both countries’ interests to work together.

She rejected suggestions the relationship was ‘‘frozen’’.

But despite the conciliatory tone from the former top official, who retains a strong interest in Australia, she blamed the Australian media for creating an ‘‘unfriendly atmosphere’’ and stirring up anti-China rhetoric.

‘‘Both countries need to show their sincerity and courage to get out of the current dilemma,’’ Ms Fu told The Australian Financial Review in rare public comments.

‘‘We should make more effort to increase contact, communication and co-ordination, and increase mutual understanding and trust in the process of solving problems and narrowing divergences, instead of resorting to confrontation and abusive language based on assumptions and hypothesis, thus hurting each other.’’

Her comments came as the People’s Republic of China marked the anniversary of its founding on October 1, 1949, against the backdrop of unprecedented geopolitical instability caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty around the US election.

The tone of her answers contrasted with increasingly heated criticism from Beijing towards Australia. The Morrison government is bracing for further economic retaliation from China’s leaders, who have refused to take phone calls from the Prime Minister and other top government ministers.

In written responses to questions from the Financial Review, she conceded that China was dependent on Australian exports such as iron ore and decoupling was not in the interests of either country.

‘‘The trade structure between China and Australia is determined by the complementary needs of the two countries. Australia is a country with rich resources while China has a huge demand for resources,’’ she said.

China relies heavily on iron ore from Australia to fuel its infrastructure-led building boom, although state media has played up the long-term prospects of alternative sources in Africa over the past two months.

She also noted Australian wine was popular with Chinese consumers but did not mention the anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine exports. Her comments were a contrast to negative comments about Australia by China’s Foreign Ministry and statecontrolled media, particularly the Global Times newspaper.

China’s so-called ‘‘Wolf Warrior’’ diplomats have taken an aggressive tone with many of Beijing’s trading partners since the coronavirus outbreak.

While Wang Xining, the deputy head of the Chinese embassy, also made conciliatory remarks during a speech in August, that was before the detention of an Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, in Beijing became public knowledge and two other Australian journalists left China (including this reporter).

China has slapped restrictions on Australian beef and barley and launched an antidumping probe into wine since Scott Morrison angered Beijing in April with calls for an international inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.

‘‘The US, instead of taking a leading role to encourage the world to join hands to fight the pandemic, has instigated suspicion and repulsion against China,’’ Ms Fu said.

‘‘In Australia, some people have also criticised China’s effort to control the pandemic. These opinions caused confusion and dissatisfaction amongst the Chinese readers. Such incidents are not constructive to a healthy bilateral relationship and will create barriers to co-operation in the fight against the pandemic.’’

Ms Fu was China’s ambassador to Australia from 2003 to 2007 and was viewed in Canberra at the time as one of Beijing’s most open and popular diplomats. She went on to be China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

She said she did not believe bilateral ties were frozen, referring to comments in the Australian media that relations were in the ‘‘deep freeze’’, given Beijing’s reluctance to host ministerial visits.

‘‘In fact, co-operation between China and Australia has been robust, and the quick recovery in the bilateral trade after the outbreak of the pandemic is a case in point,’’ she said.

She noted China-Australia trade increased seven-fold from $US21.17 billion in 2004 to $US159 billion ($222 billion) last year.

‘‘I remember that a lot of effort was made to expand the bilateral trade when I was the ambassador to Australia,’’ Ms Fu said. ‘‘I visited many businesses in the fields of natural resources and animal husbandry in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

‘‘Through my extensive contacts with people from various sectors, such as agriculture, commerce and industry, I strongly felt the economic complementarity and the need for co-operation between China and Australia.’’

She said the high point in relations was in 2014 when leaders from both countries met three times in 12 months and President Xi Jinping announced the comprehensive strategic partnership.

She also warned there were implications for Australia from rising tensions between China and the United States.

‘‘I don’t believe the international community wants to be forced to take sides in a split world,’’ she said.

‘‘As a stakeholder, Australia would not want to face this choice either. China supports Australia playing an active role in the region and on the world stage. We also expect Australia to bridge the current divergence, not the opposite.’’

Ms Fu is also a former ambassador to the Philippines and one of the few women to serve in senior roles in the Chinese government. In 2008, she accused the UK media of demonising China.

In her answers, she said the Chinese public were sensitive about foreign interference and disliked ‘‘unsolicited comments’’ which were made without fully understanding the facts.

While she did not specify what that referred to, the Morrison government and other nations have criticised China’s early handling of the pandemic and its actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

‘‘The Chinese media publishes strong comments when Australia shows its ideological prejudice,’’ she said.

‘‘Of course, China needs to enhance its international communication ability, and should provide first-hand information to the world more quickly to prevent its image from being tarnished by rumours and disinformation.’’

Criticising the accuracy of reporting by a ‘‘small number of Australian journalists’’, Ms Fu said there were ‘‘absurd’’ reports during her time as ambassador that 3000 Chinese spies were operating in Australia. ‘‘I was asked about this question [at the time], and I replied: What is the purpose for China to send 3000 spies to Australia, a country with a 25 million population?

‘‘If China should find such a move necessary, how many spies does China need to send across the world?

‘‘Are Chinese people happy to work so hard to afford all these spies? How could China develop if we need to pay so many spies? Hearing my remarks, everyone laughed. It is a shame that there is still an abundance of this type of absurd information.’’

Ms Fu also said decoupling was not an option for either country.

‘‘To cut off the supply chain deliberately will bring about high costs and hurt the interests of all countries. I don’t believe that ‘the third forces’, including Australia, will want to see the end of economic globalisation and the collapse of the global regimes.’’

She quoted Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade statistics showing China bought more than 80 per cent of Australian iron ore, 75 per cent of its wool, and 40 per cent of its wine.

Ms Fu said friends brought Australian wine during a recent visit to her home town in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

‘‘It shows the popularity of Australian wine in China,’’ she said.

‘‘Those who advocate ‘decoupling’ China and Australia trade should listen to the opinions of entrepreneurs and consumers from our two countries.

‘‘Although it has been a long time since I left Australia, I have been closely following developments in the relationship. My understanding is that the current problems are to some extent caused by lack of enough mutual understanding and steady trust.’’

She warned conflicts sometimes escalated due to miscommunication.

‘‘China treasures its ties with Australia,’’ Ms Fu said. ‘‘We believe that a sound and stable China-Australia relationship is in the interests of both countries.

‘‘I am sure that Australia’s government, enterprises and its people are willing to continue co-operating with China. Both countries need to show their sincerity and courage to get out of the current dilemma.’’

She said her time working in Australia and the UK taught her that Western countries had two problems understanding China.

‘‘The first is a lack of first-hand information, partly due to language barriers. The second is the deep-rooted prejudice,’’ she said.

‘‘The understanding and judgment about China tend to be clouded by their memory during the Cold War. Now that China’s strength is increasing, a fear of China is appearing in the West.

‘‘The most urgent task for the world is to unite together and make a joint effort to fight against the pandemic, including research and development of vaccines and effective drugs, manufacturing and supply of medical equipment and goods, and resumption of normal work and production.’’

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Callum has a honours degree in political science from the University of Sydney which examined the influence key players in Australia's financial services industry exert over government. He is a sub-editor for P&I.

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