Media in the Asian Century. The past week’s regional diplomacy passed through the media in a blur.

Drop-catching in Canberra

China’s embassy in Canberra has belatedly woken up to the way things are done in our capital, it seems, and got into the business of “dropping” newsworthy material into the laps of selected press gallery members.

However, it’s still in the quaint old pattern of revealing itself as the source, though not the name of the diplomat doing the drop and making accompanying remarks. It still has a lot to learn from the people in Prime Minister’s and Cabinet and in Home Affairs.

So we had the dossier of “14 disputes” handed over to reporters from Nine television, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age on Wednesday. Basically, the list says everything wrong in the relationship is Australia’s fault.

To rub it in from Beijing, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Zhào Lìjiān employed the old saying: Whoever hung the bell on the tiger’s neck must untie it, meaning that those who have caused problems should be the ones to solve them. As US specialist Jeremy Goldkorn noted in his SupChina website, the last time that phrase was used by a Chinese official, it was Xí Jìnpíng in 2014, telling American journalists it was their own fault they were having visa difficulties in China.

Zhao listed only seven areas of dispute, so the embassy has doubled Australia’s sins, partly by splitting some into two, such as by separately listing Australia’s call for an independent Covid-19 inquiry and spreading US “disinformation” about China’s efforts to contain the virus. If the embassy had waited a bit, they could have added Scott Morrison’s tighter military alliance with Japan concluded in Tokyo on Tuesday, which got a separate blast from the Global Times in Beijing.

Canberra journalists immediately went to Australian leaders and officials for comment. Morrison told Channel Nine the Government would not compromise on its foreign investment or interference laws. “In that list you would’ve seen the media and freely elected politicians apparently aren’t allowed to speak their minds, well, we won’t be changing that in Australia either,” he said. “We’ll continue to be ourselves, we’ll stand up for our national interests, but we’ll engage with our partners respectfully.”

That a lot of the charges were true enough and could be addressed without abject surrender of national interests did not get much analysis.

After all, Australia’s application of foreign investment controls is puzzling. Canberra’s efforts to “torpedo” Victoria’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative is partisan politics. The dawn raids on Chinese journalists have not been explained. Why ban two of the leading Chinese academics in Australian studies? Senator Eric Abetz’s exercise in McCarthyism was an affront to decent Australians too – why did Morrison have to stand beside him for the TV cameras afterward?

Frydenberg weighs in

Still, the barrage from the Chinese side shot holes in the white flag of truce Josh Frydenberg was waving that very morning on the front page of The Australian.

As a front-page lead, the newspaper reported in advance the treasurer’s speech to a “strategic forum” it was hosting. Political reporter Simon Benson described it as Frydenberg’s “first diplomatic intervention” that was “designed to reassure nervous business leaders that Canberra was open to ­rebuilding relations with Chinese leadership.”

“Both of our countries have benefited hugely from our growing trade relationship; without this, we both lose,” Frydenberg said. “The fact that we have different political systems and different values means we will not always agree. That is not new. But despite our differences, we are committed to maintaining a strong and productive relationship. We stand ready to engage with the Chinese government in respectful, mutually beneficial dialogue.”

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe also chipped in, saying it was in the economy’s interest for the relationship between Australia and its largest trading partner to get back on track. BHP chief executive Mike Henry said Australia was an export-dependent economy. “Other nations may aspire to succeed in self-sufficiency and autonomy. Australia simply isn’t built to succeed under this model,” he said.

Such voices are no longer being condemned as traitorous sell-outs, at least when your own newspaper gets them first. Earlier, grizzled Canberra official Dennis Richardson used a Minerals Council of Australia launch of a new paper on Southeast Asian export prospects to urge business to be unapologetic about making money from China. Richardson’s general message was that China contacts could be re-opened if we pulled our heads in a bit, but it might take two or three more years in the “doghouse.”

Uhlmann and Hartcher stand firm

Still, it’s hard for some to cool it on China. After Morrison signed Australia up to the new 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, which includes China but not the United States, his trade minister Simon Birmingham came out, uncriticised, with the statement: “It is crucial that partners like China, as they enter into new agreements like this, deliver not only on the detail of such agreements but act true to the spirit of them.” He still wonders why the Chinese aren’t talking to him.

At Nine, Canberra correspondent Chris Uhlmann was all praise for the government “consistently doing two perfectly sensible things in the face of enormous provocation [from China], building internal defences and gathering external support from like-minded countries.

Admittedly it was not helped by Abetz’s performance, but where was the Labor Party? “Some in its ranks have ripped their analysis from the editorials of the Global Times where the Australian government is always cast as entirely responsible for any bad blood,” Uhlmann told us in his SMH-Age column.

His stablemate Peter Hartcher was more sanguine: “Scott Morrison and his cabinet have no intention of buckling under Chinese coercion. Neither does Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party. Both sides of Parliament are deeply aware that the Chinese Communist Party is testing Australia’s sovereign resolve. Once broken, it will be too late to recover. Capitulation now would lead to subjugation.”

Winds of change in Asia

Perhaps it will take more time for analysis, but the past week’s regional diplomacy has passed through the media in a blur. Maybe it was because virtual meetings replaced the usual funny-shirt encounters that mark the annual summitry of the Association of Southeast Asian nations.

Morrison was hyperactive at his screen, however. On top of a $1 billion loan to Indonesia for Covid-19 recovery, he was splashing millions more regional health measures and an astonishing $232 million for development along the Mekong River. He also announced extending Australia’s network of defence attachés to all ASEAN capitals, opening an office in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw in addition to the embassy in Yangon, and putting $104 million into military education and other security programs around ASEAN.

The biggest development was the signing of the RCEP by the 10 ASEAN members plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. After so long in negotiation, the Australian was waiting for it to happen before reporting it. The general consensus was that it was “symbolic” of good intentions for an open trading region, with the most valuable thing immediately a lifting of rules of origin on goods traded within this huge region. It was roundly dismissed as useless by Greg Sheridan in The Australian and Terry McCrann in the Murdoch tabloids.

Then attention shifted to Morrison’s physical meeting with Japan’s Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on Tuesday. Reports underplayed the historic moment. For Japan, it was only the second time it was agreeing to allow foreign troops to be deployed on its soil. The first time in 1960, when the US-Japan security treaty was signed, the streets of Tokyo were a battleground of protest. Around that time and for some years later in Australia, you could not park a Toyota or Nissan at your RSL club.

Something else had changed. The RCEP was a case of Asian countries making their own trade rules without the United States. Then in Tokyo, the prime ministers of Japan and Australia were sharing their concerns about the reliability of the US, as John McCarthy noted here on Wednesday, rather than leaders from Australia and the US conferring about Asians.

The King’s general and I

While teleconferencing with the Southeast Asia leaders last weekend, Morrison also signed an agreement with Thailand’s prime minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, elevating the Thai-Australian relationship to “strategic partnership” with plans to step up defence co-operation, crime-fighting and trade.

Thousands of young Thais continue to risk draconian jail sentences under the lèse majesté law and potentially a violent army crackdown by occupying Bangkok streets to press for more limits on the powers of the mercurial King Vajiralongkorn and democratic reforms. So the pros and cons of embracing former coup-leader Prayut at this time might have warranted some debate.

The new partnership was prominently reported in the Thai and Vietnamese media. But in Australia you would have had to have gone to the Canberra Times, Warrnambool Standard, the Goulburn Post, the Bega District News, or others in Antony Catalano’s regional newspaper chain for any coverage at all, a bare Australian Associated Press report written from a Canberra handout.

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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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