Those dangerous and subversive sister cities.

Sister cities provide opportunities for coercion, according to Professor John Blaxland.

Sister cities rarely become newsworthy. But all that changed when Scott Morrison announced last week that the federal government was drafting legislation to allow it to regulate all agreements that state and territory governments, local councils and public universities make with foreign nations. As a result, sister city relations will be reviewed by a new unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure they are consistent with Australia’s national interest.

Local governments all over the country will be astounded. Sister cities have been around for a long time and there are now more than 500 agreements. The first, linking Melbourne with Tianjin, was signed in 1980. Almost a third of the country’s 556 municipalities have them with a range of countries. More than 100 are with Chinese cities, while Japan and China account for just under half the agreements.

Recent research has found that councils and community leaders are generally satisfied with the educational and social benefits of having Chinese sister cities. The most common form of interaction involved student visits and connections along with cultural and art exchanges. The overriding purpose was to cultivate mutual understanding and international goodwill.

So why are they in the government’s sights now having been around without notable controversy for 40 years? How could they endanger the national interest?

There has been no official explanation leaving Sister Cities Australia, the peak national body, nonplussed. But Professor John Blaxland, of the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, stepped forward to provide an explanation in The Age.

He declared that while such affiliations might look innocuous “they could be used to glean information that works against Australia’s interests”. At its best this statement was more delphic than informative. Local governments would be wondering if there had been any evidence of this happening over the past 40 years. And to what sort of information was the professor alluding? What strategic intelligence was secreted in all those town hall records?

But more direct advice followed. Local councils, he warned, “need to do some hard-nosed [sic] thinking about how the information that was being accessed through these arrangements might be used against us”. Aldermen and women may have been left wondering what passes for “hard-nosed thinking” among the intellectual mandarins of the national university. But then again there may have been an involuntary shiver of excitement with the realisation that despite their quotidian immersion in roads, rates and rubbish, councils were now on the frontline of the new cold war, holding information of value to the enemy. Blaxland also explained that while the government’s proposals did not single out China, they were clearly aimed at the Asian superpower. He added that:

In and of themselves, each one appears relatively innocuous, but it is the access and influence that they provide. That is something that local councils have never had to think about before.

The advice that followed was less obscure but more paternal and frankly alarmist. Blaxland explained that sister city connections created an environment where friendships could be abused. When intimate relations form, he declared, “you provide opportunities for coercion”. How chastened those naïve councillors in more than 100 towns and cities that have developed connections with China must have felt by the stern warning.

How unworldly they had been, thinking it was a good idea to establish sister city relations with our overwhelmingly important trading partner. And beyond that, the aim in all such connections was to build relationships between communities and work towards world peace, in the words of Mike Jakins, the secretary of Sister Cities Australia.

Blaxland’s views on China require further examination. It is a reasonable assumption that they reflect ideas widespread among Canberra’s cabal of defence and security experts who  exert disproportionate influence on foreign policy, and more particularly on the sudden development of a hostile, if not decidedly belligerent stance, towards the PRC.

These attitudes are now riding high in Canberra, shaping government policy as well as the views of the compliant and compromised Labor opposition.

So what is to be learnt from the new policy towards sister cities? The agreements were established at a time when it was thought Australia should develop a wide range of contacts with China – social and cultural connections that would deepen our engagement with, and understanding of, the emerging super power. The more people who became China-literate the better. The more visionary among us looked forward to a time when Australia’s unique situation as a predominantly European society in close proximity to Asia would allow us to play a critical role as a cultural go-between and arbiter. And these views obviously inspired hundreds of councillors and staff to develop relations with counterparts in a large number of Chinese cities.

So where do we go from here? If sister city relations do survive, they will face scrutiny from the federal government although how that could actually be achieved is hard to imagine. We can only speculate what form of thought police would be required to bring to heel local government.

And we must take seriously the growing tendency for the security services and their acolytes in the mainstream media to see Chinese influence everywhere in a replay of cold war paranoia at its most extreme. The assumption now seems to be that if anyone publicly expresses support for China, let alone qualified admiration for its achievements, it is presumed that a clandestine communist party agent has been involved.

And what about friendships? We should recall that Blaxland warned local government that when intimate relations form, opportunities arise for coercion. Is he intimating that friendships need to be scrutinised by the security services? Does he think friendships are against the national interest I wonder?

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Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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