GEOFF RABY. What a Morrison Government could do on China.

Jun 12, 2019

The Accidental Morrison Government needs now to face up to Australia’s most important foreign policy challenge: how to restore relations with China.  Under Turnbull/Bishop’s mismanagement, the relationship plumbed its lowest depth since diplomatic relations were established 47 years ago.  Doing so won’t be easy and will require substantive policy changes, not merely a re-packaging of existing approaches and changed messaging, as helpful and well-intentioned as these may be. 

More than change in messaging required

Since Morrison took leadership of the Coalition, he and Foreign Minister Marise Payne have toned down the rhetoric considerably.  Gone is Turnbull/Bishop’s strident hyperbole which saw Australia well out in front of regional countries, and often the US as well, on issues such as the South China Sea. It has been replaced with more measured nuanced language.

Before the election, Morrison also announced a revamping of the Australia-China Council with creation of the Australia-China Foundation with a substantial increase in funding. This is both long overdue and, although still modest compared with what other comparable governments spend on developing cultural relations with China, should be acknowledged and welcomed by Beijing as an important signal that Morrison as PM is seeking concrete ways to improve the bilateral relationship.

Last week’s visit to Sydney and joint exercises by three naval vessels of the PLA was another important step towards improved bilateral relations.  That it was not pre-announced was extraordinary.  The timing was also unfortunate as it occurred on the 30thanniversary of the PLA’s attack on demonstrators on the western approaches to Tian’anmen Square.

In the past Australia, could have expected an early visit by the Chinese foreign minister carrying an invitation for the Prime Minister to visit at an early time.  This will not happen now.  China feels no pressure to repair relations.

Substantive policy changes: Huawei and BRI

While the change in tone under Morrison/Payne is a helpful step towards improved relations, Beijing will want to see evidence of substantive policy changes before returning to more normal relations that will permit high-level visits in each direction to resume.

Two issues Beijing would wish to see the Morrison Government address in order to repair relations are Huawei’s participation in Australia’s 5G network and Australia’s signing on to various Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) memoranda.  Changing existing policy on either would be resisted strongly by the United States.  Without any strategic policy discussion, Australia finds itself entirely on the US side of today’s most pressing foreign policy fissure – something Hugh White warned of many years ago.

Last August, the Turnbull Government’s grand extravagant rejection of Huawei’s participation in the 5G network would appear to have been a significant factor in Beijing’s decision to keep the relationship in the freezer.  While every Australian government has not only the right, but the responsibility, to protect Australia’s security – however that may be understood – a high-profile, publicly announced blanket ban on Huawei’s participation, while cheered on by Washington, was totally unnecessary for Australia to do.

Were diplomats involved, rather than Canberra’s heavy-handed security establishment, a more nuanced, less offensive approach could have been adopted without compromising national security. As the British and German governments have concluded, a 5G network contains sensitive and non-sensitive equipment and access.  It is in the interests of Australian consumers for the government to work out which is which and open tendering for non-sensitive areas to the most competitive equipment supplier.

As a priority, the government should instruct the bureaucracy to identify which parts of a 5G network can be opened to competitive tendering from all interested potential suppliers.  For those parts that will be restricted, the diplomats should be left to work on the messaging and presentation.  Beijing understands that governments will seek legitimately to protect national security as it does so itself.  It is unnecessary and harms Australia’s interests to do this in ways that cause Beijing to lose face, as was done by the Turnbull Government.

Unfortunately, this is not going to happen.  The difficulty for Morrison is that as the then Minister for Homeland Security, he was the one to announce the decision to ban Huawei outright.  Morrison tied himself to the blunt instrument of a blanket ban on Huawei at the urging of the security establishment.  With US pressure and sections of the Australian media barking over the “Huawei threat”, Morrison would require exceptional political courage to walk back from the blanket ban.

The Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is where Australia might both advance its national interests and improve relations with China.  Unlike the Huawei ban, neither the Turnbull nor Morrison Governments have ever set out a clear policy, other than it is suspicious of China’s motives.    Behind this is a fuzzy notion that somehow, through BRI, China is seeking to impose a Sino-centric order on the world.

The Government’s line is that Australia takes a “case-by-case” approach to various BRI initiatives, but it has participated in very few activities, not joined its summit meetings, and made only one perfunctory appearance at a trade ministers’ meeting.

The BRI horse has well and truly bolted by now.  It claims 152 countries and international organisations as participants.  It comprises multiple international forums extending well beyond trade, investment and infrastructure to finance and even intellectual property, in which the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) actively participates.   China’s airports now have a BRI preferential immigration queue alongside its APEC Business Travellers’ Card queue.

BRI is the signature foreign policy initiative of President Xi Jinping.  As such, it has assumed an importance for Chinese officials far greater than it warrants in terms of its substance.  Australia’s participation in the full range of BRI activities would be valuable diplomatic coin in Beijing.

It is not in Australia’s interest to stand apart from this rapidly evolving international architecture. If Australia holds doubts about China’s real agenda, then its interests are better served by joining with the other democracies that are engaged with the BRI and working to influence its development.

It is true that the BRI is a direct challenge to the post-1949, US-led, international system. China makes no secret of its ambitions to re-shape that to reflect the changed balance of global economic weight and increasingly of power.  Australia needs to be engaged in helping shape the new order, not being King Canute attempting to hold back the tide.

Diplomacy is needed

A major challenge now for any Australian Government is that the US has defined both Huawei and BRI as key points of confrontation with China.  Any move to shift away from current policy settings will be seen in Washington as something of a betrayal.

Accepting the reality of the corner Morrison has painted Australia into over Huawei, and the blanket ban stays, serious and high-level engagement with BRI could go some way to restoring relations between Beijing and Canberra.  It would not be beyond the reach of Australian diplomacy for the Chinese to come to see this as a major step by an Australian Government blind-sided by the rapid change in the world order.  And with the US, Australia’s forward position on Huawei should cut us some slack for engaging BRI.

With the security-intelligence establishment leading on the management of Australia’s relations with China, this is not going to happen unless the Morrison Government takes a firm hand and restores the primacy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in managing Australia’s relations with China.

This is a revised and updated version of the column published in the Australian Financial Review on the 15 May 2019.

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