Morrison-Naked in Cornwall with ‘allies’ backfilling the markets we have lost in China

Jun 23, 2021

Far from being a vindication of the Government’s China policies, the G7 plus 4 meeting highlighted the abject failure of Australia’s reckless foreign policy towards China. Australia alone of the 11 nations present had no official contact with China and significant parts of its trade suspended, which others at the meeting are busily back filling.

Certainly, Australia was an invited guest to Cornwall at the same time as the G7 was meeting, along with South Africa, India, and South Korea, because the UK as Chair wanted to make a statement about democracies standing up to authoritarian states. And none matters more than China, nor is it more challenging for democracies.

The UK Prime Minister is also keen to promote post-Brexit, the new Global Britain. It is a measure of the extent that the UK feels its global position so diminished after Brexit that it feels the need to embrace Australia at almost every opportunity; trade, immigration policy, China.

The final G7 Communique (which did not involve Australia) sent a message to China that democracies were increasingly worried about aberrant aspects of their behaviour, and again invoked the mantra of rule of law, freedom of navigation and human rights.

All of which would have been anticipated by Beijing and would hardly have had China’s leaders hiding under their bedcovers.  The G7 could at least congratulate itself at having produced a communique this time round.

But as the Financial Times reported, the G7 was divided by how to frame references to China. Canada, Italy and the UK apparently wanting to present the west in attractive terms rather than antagonising China. In the end, China was mentioned only three times which is a little odd in itself as it is the primary source of world economic growth at present.

Significantly, no explicit support was given to Australia in the document. References to following trade rules would have been present whether, or not, Australia was experiencing economic coercion from China. It is in the interests of each of these countries to keep pressure on China to do so.

Australia has friends, and they were there in numbers at the G7 plus 4 gathering, but the friends also have their interests.  When it comes to foreign policy, interests prevail. As Winston Churchill would have put it, “we have no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests”.

As for concrete measures by which the democracies were going to push back against China, there was vaccine diplomacy and infrastructure for developing countries. Whatever the efficacy of China’s vaccine, it is well ahead of the democracies in making it freely available in developing countries.

It is even transferring technology so countries can manufacture their own and become regional supply hubs as in Egypt. It is better to have some vaccine, even if it is not the Rolls-Royce version, than none at all. The G7 has a lot of catching up to do.  Failure to deliver now will create more cynicism and strengthen China’s standing.

The vague commitment to an infrastructure build to compete with China’s BRI also risks falling short of its promise. It is an unfortunate reminder of the much-celebrated Blue Dots initiative that came out of the Bangkok ASEAN Ministerial in late 2019.

A coalition of the US, Japan and Australia undertook to compete directly with China in building infrastructure in developing Asia. After the initial fanfare, little has been heard since. Being a signature initiative by Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, we’re unlikely to hear any more about it from the current Administration.

But the west’s credibility is harmed each time a poorly funded and thought out proposal is advanced that has little chance of being executed and, if it were, to some extent, would still not match the scale of China’s efforts.

If the concern over China’s BRI infrastructure projects is really about issues such as debt sustainability, transparency, corruption, and environmental standards, then a better approach for the G7 would be to discuss cooperation with China, not competition.

A private meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi does not seem to have occurred, but if one had taken place, would the Prime Minister have warned him about the dangers of the BRI and urged him to tear up Italy’s agreement as the Australian PM tore up Victoria’s?

Morrison also does not seem to have had a bilateral meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Had he, he may have been interested in how Canada manages a particularly sensitive relationship with China, not least as, like Australia, it has two of its citizens in prison in China in high-profile cases that have led to public outrage in Canada and around the world over alleged ‘hostage diplomacy’.

Moreover, Canada has held Huawei’s CFO and daughter of its founder under house arrest for some 18 months at the request of the US. Yet Canada’s official relations have not been frozen, and they are happily replacing Australian coal, lobster, and timber in the Chinese market. Morrison could have asked Trudeau, as he should have asked all the other leaders, to demonstrate sincere solidarity with Australia but not replacing our goods in China’s market with theirs.

Perhaps Australia and Canada could also have made a joint statement about their respective citizens in Chinese detention and call for due process and compassion.

Several days after the G7, following his bilateral with French President Emmanuel Macron, Morrison finally got what he had been seeking thus far without any success: an explicit public statement in support of Australia in the face of economic coercion. But with the $50 billion French submarine deal looking increasingly troubled, he could expect nothing less.

Australia went to the G7 plus 4 meeting with no strategies or objectives other than for photo opportunities to show the folks back home that Australia was in good company. While the photo opportunities were there a-plenty, the reality remains that Australia alone has demonstrated to the participants that this government is incapable of managing a complex relationship with China in the way that others of the group can and do so daily.

We can be sure that no one present at the meetings would take note of Australian diplomacy towards China, other than being a case study of what not to do when dealing with China.

First posted in AFR  on 22 June 2021

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