Media in the Asian Century

As it turned out, Marise Payne seemed to be using the John Howard playbook of alliance management in the Washington visit.

Aussies over the top for the alliance, again

Even before they landed, it was looking over the top and ripe for cartooning – an opportunity not missed by the Australian Financial Review’s David Rowe, who portrayed Marise Payne and Linda Renolds doing an awkward tai-chi move in front of a suspicious Mike Pompeo.

Two of the Australian media’s China hawks called for caution as the foreign and defence ministers flew into Washington for the annual talks with US counterparts, instead of a Zoom conference that would have avoided them and their support team going into quarantine on return.

Even to these media warriors, quick to see a kow-tow in other directions, it was looking like an exercise in obsequiousness, coming just after a run of US administration speeches calling the Nixon-Kissinger engagement a mistake, declaring China an ideological enemy, shutting down a Chinese consulate for alleged spying, and calling Beijing’s South China Sea claims mostly invalid.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher ridiculed Pompeo’s call for allies to join a campaign to detach China’s people from its Communist Party. “The US was unable to achieve regime change in poor, weak Iraq,” he wrote on July 27. “Even with Britain and Australia joining the invasion. What makes Pompeo think the US can achieve it in a near-peer, nuclear-armed competitor such as China?… Pompeo is inviting Australia to join a great campaign, yes, but it’s not one of principle or strategy. It’s a political campaign. The campaign for the re-election of Donald Trump. Payne and Reynolds should continue the Australian policy of co-operating with the US on areas of mutual interest. And politely resist the invitation to join one US candidate’s election campaign. Even if we did, we could never be sure that Trump wouldn’t cut some secret deal with Xi and leave Australia out in the cold.”

In The Australian, Greg Sheridan took a similar line. Australia should be

“very careful” about any US request to freedom of navigation operations through the territorial seas claimed by China around its new artificial islands. And Trump’s China policy had been “wildly variable.”

“We are only 100 days from a presidential election. Joe Biden, or even a re-elected Trump, might view the South China Sea with less urgency than Trump does 100 days out from an election. We don’t want to fall into our old trap of moving in to defend a forward post that the Americans quietly abandon as soon as we get there. We need to be a bit cool in this last 100 days: not unfriendly, not unreliable, just a bit cool. And it is to be hoped Payne and Reynolds are seeing plenty of Democrats in Washington as well. The Australian relationship should always be bipartisan in both nations.”

The Howard Playbook

As it turned out, Marise Payne seemed to be using the John Howard playbook of alliance management in the Washington visit – vociferously lining up with the US administration as with Iraq and Afghanistan, but actually committing very few military resources to a risky and unwinnable campaign.

There was no agreement to join the US Navy in sail-throughs. As for Pompeo’s speech at the Richard Nixon memorial library on July, declaring all communists liars, she made a point of distancing herself from it, according to Matthew Knott of the SMH. “The secretary’s positions are his own,” Payne said when asked. “Australia’s position is our own.” Yes, the US and Australia have shared values and a longstanding military alliance, she said. “But most importantly from our perspective, we make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interests.” But even so, Knott couldn’t quite stretch it to a Love Actually moment.

Having put this spin on things, sparse details leaked out about a “secret” agreement that would beef up the American posture in the Western Pacific, including a new US fuel dump in Darwin. If that also fulfils a goal of Canberra’s latest defence posture review, building up fuel and ammunition stocks, that would be…well, very John Howard.

By yesterday, Sheridan was feeling mightily relieved: “The Morrison government has secured concrete actions from the Americans that will almost certainly survive the presidential election, no matter who wins. So Canberra takes full advantage of this partly election-induced forward leaning moment in Washington while still maintaining a safe social distancing, so to speak, from any potentially infectious US electoral rhetoric. That’s a good week’s work.”

His colleague in Washington, Cameron Stewart, was having little of that. Under the headline “Trump’s thrilling, unexpected triumph” one piece was billed as: “Australia is the model ally for which the US is looking when it comes to confronting an increasingly belligerent China.” Another headlined “You’ll never stand alone on China” said Pompeo had issued “a powerful declaration of support for Australia’s pushback against Chinese aggression.”

Ministering truth

Payne also agreed with Pompeo their two governments should work together countering fake news and disinformation, particularly on social media apps which are often the main or only source of news in developing countries.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had already announced it was setting up a unit for this purpose. But in Donald Trump’s administration, not exactly known for its adherence to fact, which agency would be the counterpart?

Quite possibly it would be the US Agency for Global Media, which supervises external broadcasters like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Network. In June, Trump got conservative documentary maker Michael Pack installed as head of the agency, following a long and contested confirmation process in Congress. Progressives have tended to see him as Trump’s Dr Goebbels.

Pack delayed moving into his office to get it swept for covert listening devices, then proceeded to sack the heads of VOA and other broadcasters, before moving in a lot of fellow conservatives. This month he announced he would not be renewing the visas of dozens of foreign nationals working for the various VOA language channels. Foreigners? Can’t trust ‘em. How VOA will help get the right message about Covid-19 and other subjects to far-flung listeners is not clear.

The oeuvre of America’s new truth-teller includes films such as Campus Culture Wars: Five Stories about Political Correctness; Hollywood vs. Religion; Inside the Republican Revolution: The First Hundred Days; The Rodney King Incident: Race and Justice in America; The Fall of Newt Gingrich; and Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in his Own Words.

 Senior statesman

Meanwhile the Man of Steel himself has lobbed up to argue that trade has to be taken into account in the China policy debate, a point that often seems lost on the people at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the parliamentary Wolverines, whom the young press gallery members seem to think are the only experts you need to consult.

Speaking at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre on 24 July, marking 15 years of the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement, former prime minister John Howard said that despite Australia’s “deeply held relationship” with the US, its ties with China were also vitally important. “China still remains our major export destination,” he said.

“And at a time when that relationship is extremely difficult, and there is a level of aggression by the Chinese in the context of that relationship … I hope all Australians remember just how critical the Chinese market is to Australia‘s economic future.”

Sure, Xi Jinping looked at the world differently to the predecessors Howard dealt with, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. “They didn’t bully anywhere near to the same degree as does their successor,” Howard said, but Australia had to live with China, and should take a pragmatic approach to the China relationship. “We must remember the endgame, and the endgame is to maintain, to the maximum extent consistent with our values, a good economic relationship with China,” he said.

On the subject of hidden foreign hands, veteran business journalist Glenda Korporaal reported from the same event, in a piece buried in The Australian, that former Washington ambassador turned deal-maker Joe Hockey told her that attached to the US-Australia FTA was a secret codicil that Canberra had to consult the White House anytime it was considering a block on a US investment. As treasurer Hockey had discovered it when moving to stop a US takeover of a big grain trader. In a separate piece yesterday, Korporaal also elaborated this week’s plea by China Matters chief executive Michael Clifton for business to be able speak out about the value of China trade without being called money-grubbing traitors. It too was buried in the business columns, but a brave effort to push against the efforts elsewhere in News Corp.

Meanwhile anxiety is rising among Australia’s farmers that they will cop more of the punishment for Canberra’s hawkishness. Elders chief executive Mark Allison called forlornly for a “separation of powers” to detach foreign relations and trade. A new report from Agribusiness Australia, an industry group, saw “substantial economic potential” in using Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative to get Australian farm produce into western China and Central Asia.

And the Australian Financial Review reports today that China is taking an increasing share of our exports, despite all the rows.

Mole hunt continues

As The Australian’s Yoni Bashan reported on July 22, Australian Federal Police officers spent two days in the NSW state parliament inspecting documents – including speeches, petitions, questions on notice, committee papers and other material used in the drafting of these items – originating in MP Shaoquett Moselmane’s office. They were looking for signs of Chinese Communist Party influence, following earlier raids on his home and office.

Bashan followed up with a report that state parliament leaders were asking for briefing sessions with ASIO for MPs across the political divide “so they can be armed with critical information about how to manage foreign agents that may be cultivating them for nefarious purposes.” Labor politician Walt Secord meanwhile told Lisa Visentin of the SMH he wanted the state parliament building swept for listening devices. It was not clear if his worries were about worried Chinese spies or the AFP.

In the SMH on July 28, Peter Hartcher also got round to this vital front. “The Morrison government has only just started to enforce its foreign interference laws – the investigation into NSW Labor politician Shaoquett Moselmane is its first such effort,” he wrote. “Other vital measures await. These include tightening Australia’s absurdly ramshackle political donations laws, introducing security screening for new MPs and senators, and developing a national resilience agenda.” Just what we need, Peter Dutton vetting our politicians.

But with the Daily Telegraph on the case, who needs ASIO? Under the headline “Liberal MP pressed on his China plates” its reporter James O’Doherty “revealed” Liberal state MP Mark Coure used the company of a businessman linked to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front operations to print taxpayer-funded electorate mat­erial, before the party received a donation of almost $1000 from the man less than a year later.

Coure had even been a VIP guest at “a Chinese community Christmas function last year attended by the same businessman. “That’s despite former prime minister Tony Abbott seeking to distance himself from a similar event he atten­ded almost a year earlier,” the report said.

In the Sunday Telegraph, Ellen Whinnett – she who revealed Canberra was withdrawing funding and tax-deductible status from the China Matters institute – noted that the expelled Chinese consul-general in Houston, Cai Wei, was none other than the Cai Wen who had previously been China’s deputy head of mission in Canberra. “In 2018, the ABC revealed Mr Cai and other diplomats invited about a dozen new Labor MPs to dinner, where they reassured them that Beijing was not seeking to bully foreign students,” Whinnett reported.

Masks and Fu Manchu

The Sun-Herald meanwhile sent reporter Michael Koziol out to sample Sydney restaurants and bars for compliance with Covid-19 contact tracing rules. He found seven allegedly not collecting details of their customers. Sure enough the first two mentioned in the story were Chinese restaurants, with a picture of one as illustration.

It may have been quite unconscious, but rather wearily, some Chinese-Australians are fed up with what they see as “persistent seeking of an anti-Chinese angle in whatever comes along.” As one regular (non-Chinese) customer of the pictured restaurant notes: The insidious Dr Fu Manchu lurks everywhere seeking to further his evil plan for world domination.”

In following days, actual hotspots for Covid-19 in Sydney has been the all-Oz Crossroads Hotel and the Thai Rock restaurant in the battling western suburbs and the Apollo restaurant in affluent Potts Point, which advertises “modern Greek dishes cooked over wood & charcoal in an industrial-chic space with a marble bar.” Covid-19 is nothing if not multicultural.

The front yard

Finally, this column has been focussed mainly on media treatment of China so far, and comparatively little on the rest of Asia. That’s because the Australian media hardly reports it, especially with many correspondents withdrawn because of Covid-19 and trying to report from here.

It took the Weekend FT to tell us last Saturday that Goldman Sachs had settled with Malaysia over the 1MDB scandal for US$4 billion. Over following days, our media caught up with the sentencing of former prime minister Najib Razak to 12 years jail over this scandal. The aftermath of the recent election setback for Singapore’s ruling party is not explored. Trends in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines are spottily reported. India’s turn towards what some fear is saffron (Hindu) fascism under Narendra Modi is not tracked.

This is the region, the core of the “Indo-Pacific” that every politician, every think-tanker, every media pundit says is crucial to security and economic balance with China.

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Hamish McDonald has been a correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, New Delhi and Beijing, and was Regional Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and Foreign Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He has won two Walkley Awards for reporting from Asia and was made an Inaugural Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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