Media in the Asian Century: Belting Victoria

Apr 23, 2021

The federal press gallery continues to give the Morrison government a free ride on its handling of foreign policy.

There was no sign of any hard questioning of foreign minister Marise Payne about why she focussed on Victoria in her first application of the government’s new veto powers over relationships with foreign countries by states, local governments and public universities.

Payne announced the forced cancellation of Victoria’s two memoranda of understanding signed with China’s top state body over 2018-19 for participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, along with two moribund technical education agreements, one signed with Iran in 2004, the other with Syria in 1999.

She said these were “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy or adverse to our foreign relations”, without elaborating.

As James Laurenceson, head of the UTS Australia China Relations Institute tweeted:

“Let’s be clear what has been cancelled: a non-legally binding MOU that didn’t commit the VIC state government to do anything, let alone the national government. There was an option to just let it lapse and not approve new agreements. A choice was made to send a message to [China].”

The BRI agreements have been a favourite motif of attack on the Victorian premier Daniel Andrews by Coalition MPs and News Corp commentators, irked by his continuing popularity through Covid-19 outbreaks in the state. The decision to axe them got furious agreement by Canberra’s security establishment, with press gallery reports saying Australia’s policy was to oppose the BRI anywhere.

Payne’s announcement came a few hours after China’s deputy ambassador, Wang Xining, appeared at the National Press Club alongside the ANU China in the World Institute’s ’s Jane Golley and self-exiled Australian Financial Review correspondent Michael Smith to launch the institute’s new China Yearbook.

While Wang strongly attacked the decision by the Turnbull government in 2018 to bar Huawei from 5G mobile networks – the start of the crisis in the relationship – it seemed to mark a restart of dialogue, and Wang suggested correspondents could return to China. Only recently, new defence minister Peter Dutton had talked of being able to work “collaboratively” with the Communist Party of China on regional security.

As the also-stranded China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Eryk Bagshaw commented: “Australia’s relationship with China was already broken. This decision pushes the repair job out by years, if not decades.”

But he couldn’t bring himself to suggest it might have been unnecessary: “After nearly four months of relative calm in the rollicking Australia-China relationship, the temptation for the Morrison government must have been to let the agreement sit and gather dust. But this also misstates the fundamental judgment of Australia’s foreign policy leaders. The BRI deal should never have been signed. In doing so, Victoria ventured ignorantly into the waters of sovereignty.”

One-eyed look at Five Eyes

As if putting Victoria in its place wasn’t enough, Canberra’s foreign policy-security establishment had another insurrection on its hands this week, broken by the ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic.

“We are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes relationship,” said New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta. “We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues.”

Canberra has been keen on expanding the 1940s signals intelligence-sharing pact into a broader strategic partnership, with Peter Dutton as home affairs minister pushing for its agencies to get into police matters like terrorism, organised crime and paedophilia. Its security hawks also support a push by Japan to get admitted.

Mahuta’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern elaborated on her remarks. “We should be banding together where we see issues globally that don’t align with our shared values,” Ardern said. “But the point our Foreign Minister has rightly raised is: Is this best done under the banner of a grouping of countries around a security intelligence platform? Or is it best done under the banner of a group of countries with shared values, some of which may not belong to the Five Eyes partnership?”

Outrageous stuff for some. From London, Alexander Downer tweeted: “Sorry to read the New Zealand FM has downgraded NZ role in 5 eyes arrangement. And they upgraded FTA with China in February while China was imposing sanctions on Australia. Used to be our best mates. Not now.”

Mahuta said Wellington had already raised its misgivings with other Five Eyes partners, but Anthony Galloway of the SMH found Canberra had been “blindsided” by Kahuta: While Wellington’s conspicuous absence from a few joint statements had caused unease in Canberra over the past year, Australian officials did not know about New Zealand’s official opposition to using the spy network to exert diplomatic pressure on Beijing.”

Galloway and The Australian’s Will Glasgow noted there had been a build-up of friction: Dutton furiously deporting New Zealand citizens raised in Australia after often minor jail terms, Mahuta offering to mediate with China, and New Zealand trade minister Damien O’Connor suggesting Australia could show more “respect” and “diplomacy” towards China.

“Senior officials in the Australian government repeatedly put these interventions down to rookie ministers still learning their brief, and did not necessarily see them as the views of Ardern,” Galloway reported. “However, the latest comments from Mahuta are different.”

Officials are joking about a “Four Eyes” pact, he said, and reported unnamed Australian officials as disputing that New Zealand was charting a more “independent” course: “It is Australia, they argue, who has been the one standing on its two feet: the first to ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from next-generation networks, first to enact foreign interference laws and ahead of the curve on blocking foreign investment in critical national infrastructure.”

Quite.  But as Glasgow quoted David Capie, head of strategic studies at the Victoria University of Wellington: “Where this government has been different has been that it has tried to find a way to express those differences with China without, frankly, ending up in the freezer.”

Talks in Wellington this week by Payne, ahead of a visit by Scott Morrison in early May, may be “frank” and perhaps not “fruitful”.

Scotty of the Antarctic?

Moving further south to an actual deep freeze, Australia’s Antarctic research lobby showed that if you want to get noticed in Canberra and open up the flow of money, bring in a China threat.

The Australian’s Ben Packham reported that “Australia faces a loss of influence in Antarctica – potentially to China – if it fails to move ahead with plans for a year-round paved runway on the frozen continent.”

This was the message in a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, written by the University of Tasmania’s Jeffrey McGee and others. The site for the 2.7-km concrete runway was in the Vestfold Hills, an ice-free area next to Australia’s Davis station.

“If Australia decides to not proceed, there’d be no legal barrier to China – or any other Antarctic country – putting forward a new aerodrome proposal for the Vestfold Hills and doing it on rock.” the report said. “Failing to proceed with the proposal would weaken our influence in Antarctica: it would allow other states to take advantage of the opportunity for logistical and scientific leadership in East Antarctica.”

The cost of the runway would be “substantial”, and take 15-years to build, and has raised environmental concerns but the report says Australia was best placed to construct it with care. Canberra is due to make a decision within a year.

Our on and off interest in the South Pacific.

China has not been making waves for a while in the South Pacific, so perhaps that’s the reason the mounting Covid-19 crisis is getting pushed to the back pages, if mentioned at all, in mainstream newspapers.

More alarms are being raised over the rapid spread in Papua New Guinea, with AAP’s Craig Skehan reporting warnings by Burnet Institute’s Brendan Crabb at a Lowy Institute webinar this week. Crabb said the real number of infections in PNG could be ten or 20 times the reported 10,000 cases, or even more. This week Radio New Zealand reports that Bougainville island as had its first Covid death, and new cases have caused shut-downs and local travel restrictions in Fiji and Vanuatu.

Crabb said the PNG situation had deteriorated rapidly in the past month and it was time to raise the alarm. “I certainly did not expect this to be happening at this pace and on this scale,” he said.

Australia has sent 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine  to PNG, and has started sending 10,000 doses a week. The Covax initiative of the WHO and Unicef landed 100,000 does of the same vaccine on April 15, and has promised more. Yet the PNG population is estimated at 9 million, scattered across difficult terrain and islands, and conspiracy theories about the vaccine are spreading by Facebook on mobile phones, the main source of information.

Crabb called on Australia to support PNG in responding to misinformation about vaccinations; including through use of role models such as local leaders, sporting heroes and churches.  “At a higher level, I am concerned that we have not, both in Australia and at a PNG level, elevated this to the crisis level that I think it is at,” Prof Crabb said.

One awkward question that no-one in the Australian media seems to be asking is: what is the ethical position of shipping the AstraZeneca vaccine to PNG and other island countries, with their mostly young populations, when Australia itself has halted its delivery to under-50 people on expert advice? This halt includes the Torres Strait, seen as a “front-line” against spread of Covid-19 from PNG.

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