Media in the Asian Century: Digging in deeper in an already fraught relationship with China

Jan 29, 2021

China sanctions a sting in the tail for Trump officials; role of ASPI in provoking ire of China flies under the radar; and conservatives perform impressive backflips on Biden.  

ASPI in China’s sights

In the last days of the Trump administration, Scott Morrison had fond farewell phone calls with the two of its senior members most critical of China’s rising global power, Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, the latter going so far as to question the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

This came as Pompeo spent his last week upping the ante against China. He eased rules on official visits to Taiwan, sanctioned six Hong Kong officials implementing the new national security law, and on his last day as secretary of state, declared China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity against its Uighur population of Xinjiang.

Next day, as Joe Biden was being sworn in, China was announcing it was placing 28 former Trump officials under sanctions, with Pompeo at the top of the list. Not many of them would be worried about being barred from visiting mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau. The sting in the tail was that the sanctions extend to anyone who wants to employ them. “They and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China.”

As Jeremy Goldkorn noted in his SupChina website:

“Beijing is well aware of the revolving door between the public and private sectors in Washington, D.C. Former Trump administration officials and their relatives may find it much harder to get jobs in companies that have business interests in China. This would send a warning not only to employees of the US government but also to officials in any country that are considering moves against China.”

Only Josh Butler of The New Daily among the media here thought it worth reporting that Beijing is putting a large part of the blame for Pompeo’s move on our very own Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“All normal, rational people with a sober mind can draw conclusions based on facts,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying. “They should realise that Pompeo’s lies and rumours are based on the fabrications made by anti-China scholar Adrian Zenz and Australian Strategic Policy Institute.” (Zenz is a German born-again with a Cambridge PhD in anthropology who has used satellite and other data to reveal China’s mass incarceration and attempted brainwashing of Uighurs.)

Around the same time, ASPI researcher Alex Joske’s submission to federal parliament’s hawk-dominated intelligence and security committee about China’s “Thousand Talents” recruitment program – that it has allegedly lured 300 to 600 scientists into projects of potential military application – was covered by The Australian’s Max Maddison and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Antony Galloway, despite it being a report ASPI released last August.

But no coverage for the push-back from Australian scholars – notably the piece “Stigmatising China connections: problems with research on research collaborations” by the Australian National University’s Yun Jiang.

Meanwhile, Morrison was declaring himself “open and available to meet, to discuss, any of the issues that have been identified” with Xi Jinping. But not “on the base of any sort of pre-emptive concessions on Australia’s part on those matters” – referring to the 14 grievances listed by the Chinese embassy last year. Government support for ASPI was one. Morrison could be waiting for the phone call from Beijing for quite a while.

Trans-Tasman bubble

New Zealand also has a troublesome investigator who gets on Beijing’s wick – University of Canterbury sinologist Anne-Marie Brady. But somehow this hasn’t rubbed off on the country’s relationship with China.

This week NZ’s trade minister Damien O’Connor was on a video link to new Chinese trade minister Wang Wentao – the one our Trade Minister Dan Tehan is trying to contact – to sign an upgraded trade pact.

It eliminates Chinese tariffs on most paper and wood from New Zealand, will do so on dairy products and milk powder in one to three years, and promises fast clearance of seafood cargoes. China also agreed to open up to more NZ investors in areas such as aviation, education, finance, elderly care and passenger transport. NZ is giving more visas for Chinese language teachers and tour guides.

Again, this received little or no coverage in the Australian media until O’Connor ventured his opinion on Wednesday night. Asked on CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia about NZ foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta’s offer to mediate between Australia and China, O’Connor said New Zealand had a “mature relationship with China and we’ve always been able to raise issues of concern … I can’t speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships, but clearly, if they were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, then they too could hopefully be in a similar situation,” he said.

This was effrontery for Liberal MP Dave Sharma, former ambassador to Israel. “I don’t see this advice from New Zealand as particularly insightful or helpful,” he declared to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Anthony Galloway. “The idea that Australia’s tone or wording is somehow responsible for challenges in our relationship with China is one we fundamentally reject and is at odds with reality. It betrays a lack of acquaintance with basic facts that I would not expect from a close friend and partner like New Zealand.”

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, had a different set of reality goggles on. Canberra would be “reluctant to admit that Wellington might offer a model for managing China relations”, he told the SMH.

“More likely, they would jump to dismissing such talk as hopelessly naive. But some facts remain. New Zealand is a proud liberal democracy. It is a Five Eyes [intelligence] partner. It cares about sovereignty. It has prevented Huawei from participating in its 5G network. It has criticised China on issues around human rights and international law. And yet, it has just struck an upgraded FTA whereas the last meeting Australia had with China toward the same objective was in November 2017.”

Fu Manchu hits the Belt and Road

Canberra’s top journalists were more focused on the Australian Federal Police being about to get their hands on the latest incarnation of Fu Manchu, in the form of crime syndicate boss Tse Chi Lop, alleged overseer of billions of dollars’ worth of methamphetamine and heroin smuggled into Australia over recent years.

Despite being a fairly well-publicised identity, the Cantonese triad boss has been flitting around the world. He was finally arrested this month by Dutch police on an AFP warrant while transiting Amsterdam on a flight from Taiwan to Canada.

What got Nine’s Nick McKenzie, Chris Uhlmann and Joel Tozer extra excited was a link they saw between Tse’s drug and racketeering empire, the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Suspected members of his gang had invested in “large infrastructure ventures” as part of the initiative.

A close associate, Wan Kuok Koi alias “Broken Tooth”, was even a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a very public bunch of pro-Beijing domestic and overseas identities who meet in Beijing each March alongside the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress.

The source for all this was a sanctions list issued by the US Treasury in early December that included Wan. His membership of the CPPCC was immediately denied by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and looked highly implausible anyway.

In 1999, Wan was sentenced to 15 years jail by the Portuguese in Macau just before they handed the colony over to China, which kept Wan in Coloane Jail until he finished his term in 2013. The communists have been happy to get help from triad street muscle from time to time – think of the white-clad toughs who attacked pro-democracy demonstrators with iron bars in Hong Kong last year, escaping police notice – but putting Broken Tooth on display in Beijing would have been more than a bit too far. After his release, he has been back in his old gambling and loan-sharking games, mostly in the sleazy casino centres of Cambodia, if they count as Belt and Road projects.

Meanwhile in Asia

Our TV screens and newspapers have been full of the dire Covid-19 situation in Britain. The contrast in coverage of the deepening pandemic in Indonesia is striking, but some stories are starting to come through the self-imposed blinkers. The Australian’s Amanda Hodge, working from here with an Indonesian colleague, painted a harrowing picture of a hospital system near collapse. Other outlets picked up on the story, mostly from wires.
One or two letter writers to the newspapers are even suggesting Australia should postpone its mass vaccination program, given our low infection level, and divert vaccines to neighbours in distress. But we’re leaving it to China, it would seem.

The ABC has a correspondent back on the ground in New Delhi – South Asia correspondent James Oaten. He has reported on how India’s huge generic pharmaceutical industry is gearing up for a mass vaccination program, and the seige of the capital by farmers angry at Narendra Modi’s plan to remove price support and open the way for emerging supermarket chains to get more direct access to produce. The ABC’s Natalie Whiting is now back on base in Port Moresby. Time for others to show up.

Backflips on Biden

The Biden inauguration has seen some remarkable pivots by Australian “experts” on US politics who had been desperately hoping for a Trump win – notably that of former ambassador and would-be lobbyist Joe Hockey, who declared Biden to be exactly what America needs.

Now even The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan, who up until election eve was writing that Trump would be better for Australia is seeing a silver lining in Biden’s regrettable turn to multilateralism.

“The news that US president-elect Joe Biden will appoint Kurt Campbell as Asia tsar in his White House is the best thing that has happened for Australia since the Democrat triumphed over Donald Trump in the presidential election,” Sheridan wrote on January 15.

“Campbell is smart, hawkish, tough, a superb operator, a deep thinker and Australia’s best friend in Washington. He is the most influential policy thinker on Asia in the entire Democratic Party over the past generation. His appointment is a reassuring signal to US allies in Asia — and a powerful message to Beijing.”

When Hillary Clinton and Campbell left the US State Department at the end of Barack Obama’s first term, the Obama administration lost focus on China. “It was weak, multilateralist and ineffective,” Sheridan said.

Our man is dismissive of most of Biden’s other foreign policy appointments – “retreads from the ineffective second Obama administration” such as ex-diplomat Bill Burns at the CIA, an army man in Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon when Asia needs the US Navy, and John Kerry as climate ambassador. “The whole Biden administration looks Atlanticist, multilateralist, retro and a bit soft and feeble,” Sheridan opines, but Campbell will supply the “real Asia heft” that is needed.

So as Deng Xiaoping might have said, we can set our hearts at ease.

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