Stabilisation, but deeper relationship stymied by Australian mass media sinophobes

Jun 19, 2024
Canberra, Australia. 16th June, 2024. Chinese Premier Li Qiang seen walking down from the plane. Hundreds of Chinese patriots welcomed Chinese Premier Li Qiang during his visit to Canberra. Li Qiang, the second-highest ranked official in China, is the first Chinese premier to visit Australia in seven years. Image: Alamy: (Credit Image: © George Chan/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit underscores the significance of the Australia-China relationship, especially given China’s status as Australia’s largest trading partner. A deeper relation should develop, but that will take time. Trust needs to be reestablished not only at diplomatic and business levels, but also in the Australian mass media, whose China opinion writers have almost all become Sinophobes arguing that China is trying to subvert and attack its neighbours – including Australia, writes Percy Allan in an interview with China’s Global Times.

1. According to reports, Chinese Premier Li Qiang will arrive in Australia on June 15, the first visit by a Chinese premier since 2017. How do you interpret the significance of this visit? (And what do you expect the most from the visit?)

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia this month holds considerable importance. It marks the first visit by a Chinese Premier to Australia since 2017. During his stay from June 15 to June 18, 2024, Premier Li will engage in an Annual Leaders’ Meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra. They will discuss bilateral, regional, and international issues. Additionally, Premier Li will travel to Adelaide and Perth, fostering economic and trade cooperation.

The visit underscores the significance of the Australia-China relationship, especially given China’s status as Australia’s largest trading partner. It also allows both sides to discuss areas of agreement and cooperation and advance these further. Also to discuss matters of disagreement and how to manage these to avoid misunderstandings and acrimony as happened in the past. Where differences of opinion remain, these should be recognised and respected rather than weaponised.

Essentially Australia wants to “stabilise” its relations with China. This may fall short of China’s eagerness to develop closer relations with Australia as was originally agreed in the 2014 China-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. A deeper relation should develop, but that will take time since trust needs to be reestablished not only at diplomatic and business levels, but also in the Australian mass media whose China opinion writers have almost all become Sinophobes warning that China is trying to subvert and attack its neighbors including Australia.

In one case our leading dailies, the Sydney Morning Heald and Melbourne Age newspapers ran a front-page series called “Red Alert” which tapped into a panel of China hawks that predicted we would be attacked by China within three years. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which is partially funded by Australian and overseas defence departments and contractors regularly publishes policy papers on the “China threat” that the Australian media cites as independent and objective analysis.

This unwarranted alarmism has resulted in half of Australians believing there is a real possibility of military conflict with China within three years according to a survey by the Australia-China Relations Institute.

A high priority of the dialogue between the Chinese Premier and the Australian Prime Minister should be a bilateral agreement that both China and Australia will guarantee the safety of journalists from each country based in the other country as well as their freedom to report news and opinion without being interrogated or detained for doing their work.

Unfortunately, the breakdown in media relations occurred after Australian intelligence officers in June 2020 raided the homes of four Chinese journalists, interrogated them in front of their families and seized their laptops, mobile phones and other devices. I suspect these journalists fled back to China after that ugly incident. In September 2020, two Australian journalists in China were blocked from leaving the country until they answered questions about a detained Australian anchor on Chinese TV. They considered that intimidating and unnecessary and thereafter returned to Australia.

Since then, we have had no Australian journalists reporting from within China. As a result, China’s story is not being told in Australia. Until that is fixed it is doubtful local public opinion will change because it is shaped by media reporting. Pearls and Irritations is one of the few public policy blogs that publishes articles on why China is not an imperialist nation planning to invade the rest of Asia as Japan did in the 1930s and 40s. But its readership is small compared with the mass media giants like Nine Entertainment, News Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

It would also help if Premier Li could give the Australian people an assurance that China has no intention of invading Australia or any other nation that does not attack it. Also, China rejects this contention because it is not only spurious, but also gratuitous since its fundamental foreign policy principle is respect for national sovereignty. It has demonstrated that by not conquering and occupying any nation in its modern history.

2. China-Australia relations saw a “breakthrough” in 2023, with increasing high-level visits and interactions. What do you think is the biggest reason behind this?

It was clearly the change to a Labor government in March 2022. The previous Coalition government agreed to a China-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2014 that was followed by a Free Trade Agreement in 2015 which enhanced our competitive position in the Chinese market and facilitated Chinese investment in Australia. Private Chinese investors were granted equal status with investors from the USA, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Chile.

However, over the next five years the Australian government under the new Coalition Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and his successor Scott Morrison, proceeded to abrogate these agreements and trash their spirit of mutual cooperation. Australia blocked Chinese steel and aluminium products using anti-dumping measures that the World Trade Organisation later found against. It then blocked Chinese investments in Australia, including in a drinks company that had no strategic significance. It also led the world in banning Huawei technology even though it offered the best 5G mobile system.

Australian intelligence agents raided the residences of four Chinese journalists, interrogated them in front of their families and seized their computers and smartphones. It also subjected Confucius language institutes in Australian universities to closer scrutiny even though language, cultural or policy institutes linked to other nations escaped such attention (e.g. Goethe, US Studies Centre, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, British Council, Italian Cultural Institute, Australia Israel & Jewish Affairs Council).

After the outbreak of Covid in early 2020, the Australian Foreign Minister said Australia would push for an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19. Prime Minister Scott Morrison went further suggesting that the World Health Organization (WHO) needed tough new “weapons inspector” powers to investigate what caused the outbreak. China viewed that as an insult so responded by sanctioning Australian exports including barley, red meat, wine, cotton, timber, coal and lobster.

By ending the hostile rhetoric and saying Australia wants to pursue a “stable and direct relationship with China, with dialogue at its core” Australia’s new PM Anthony Albanese helped end the unnecessary row with China which resulted in China reciprocating by removing import tariffs and bans on Australian goods. At the same time our PM noted that “We will cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.”

3. Based on your knowledge, which areas/fields are benefiting from the warming of China-Australia relations? Have you observed any specific changes?

In the last two years, the warming of China-Australia relations has had notable impacts for Australia in three areas.

Firstly, Australia’s exports to China have rebounded, with products like coal, timber, barley, and hay returning to the Chinese market. Iron ore, coal, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) continue to flow from Australia to China, supporting Australia’s export income.

Secondly, both countries have engaged in high-level talks, emphasising cordial civility and commitment to dialogue. China’s top diplomat visited Australia, further strengthening diplomatic ties.

Finally, the commercial lease of Darwin Port by a Chinese company was approved by Australian assessment.

While challenges remain, these positive developments indicate progress in the bilateral relationship between China and Australia. However, it’s essential to continue monitoring the situation and maintaining open channels of communication.

4. How would you evaluate the current extent of the warming relationship between China and Australia? (Is it limited or relatively positive?) What are the remaining challenges of the ties?

If we could be more optimistic about the relationship, in which areas could China and Australia further deepen and expand their cooperation?

Unfortunately, public attitudes towards China have deteriorated in the last ten years because of Pentagon, local media, hawkish think tank and conservative parties’ hysteria about China planning to invade its neighbours including Australia. Also, the breakdown in trade relations from 2020-2023 exacerbated this Sinophobia. According to the Lowy Institute Poll 2024 53% of Australians regard China as more of a security threat than an economic partner. In 2014, the percentage of Australians who held this view was only 37%.

To be realistic a lot of work needs to be done to turn this around and rebuild trust on both sides. However, it’s important to note that while views on China have cooled overall, the 2024 Lowy poll found that Australians remain positive about Chinese people and China’s culture and history. The complex relationship between the two countries continues to evolve, with security concerns and economic ties at the forefront of public discourse.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott bluntly characterised Australia’s attitude to China as being a mixture of greed and fear. Greed for its market opportunities and fear of its ascendancy as a superpower. Hopefully our relations can develop beyond that to one of mutual trust, respect and cooperation and understanding that China has no intent to invade or subvert Australia.

While we have very different political systems, that should not stop us from cooperating where we can and recognising obvious differences where we can’t. And strengthening lines of communication and fostering one-on-one relations between senior political, business, cultural and academic people. And importantly ensuring journalists from each country feel safe to be based in and report from the other country.

5. Previously, you mentioned concerns about Australia’s foreign policy becoming a hostage of America’s, dragging Australia into conflicts not in Australia’s interest. Given the current changes in China-Australia relations, has your perspective changed? Why?

Not really. My chief concern is that if China ever blockades Taiwan to compel it to accept that it is part of One China, the US might try to break that blockade. If this resulted in a war between America and China, Australia could unwittingly become involved even if it refused to join in because America could use its military and intelligence bases located in Australia.

Also, Australia’s military policy has shifted from one of defending its own continent to projecting its forces further afield especially the China and Yellow Seas. At the same time, it has moved its military alliance with America from one of “interoperability” to “interchangeability” meaning it is working to integrate our military operations with America’s, not just conduct joint training exercises.

The risk with this move is that it will be difficult for Australia to conduct an independent foreign policy if its military forces become fused with the US forces. Once this happens if America becomes involved in an international conflict and deploys its armed forces it may be logistically impossible for Australia to divorce its army, navy, and air force from such an engagement.

I don’t think Australians have thought through the consequences of this possibility, especially since Australia, unlike America, does not have an adequate air defence system to intercept missiles and drones that might be targeted at us as an auxiliary of the Pentagon.

6. From China’s perspective, the US is currently focused on inciting the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines. Will the US pile its pressure again on Australia in the near future to stir up troubles in the relatively stabilising China-Australia relations?

The Australian media reports the dispute between the Philippines and China differently. It says the Philippine’s maritime economic zone is being wrongfully exploited by Chinese fishing vessels. Also, that a Philippines military outpost (a sunken ship on the Second Thomas Shoal of the Spratly group of islands) is within its economic zone yet being harassed by China’s coast guard. We are not hearing the Chinese side of this story, other being told it claims control of the whole South China Sea other that the territorial and contiguous zones of nations bordering that Sea.

In 2016 the International Arbitration Tribunal ruled that China’s claims to the South Philippines exclusive economic zone breached the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to which China is a signatory and which it repeatedly says it upholds. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia also contest China’s claims in the South China Sea, especially around the Parcel and Spratly Islands, and complain that their exclusive economic zones are being breached by Chinese fishing boats.

China says it wants to resolve these disputes through bilateral negotiations, but to date there seems to have been little progress because each nation refuses to make concessions. In the case of the Philippines this has seen it renew its military partnership with America. In my view China needs to resolve these maritime disputes even if it must give ground. Otherwise, more countries like the Philippines could accede to US military bases designed to encircle China.

As for Australia being pressured by America to militarily intervene in disputes over who controls the Parcel and Spratly group of islands, I doubt that will happen. America itself has not sent any frigates to help the Philippines defend its military outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal or patrol its EEZ. Indeed, the Economist magazine reports that “America will not go to war over a dead fisherman” and “dreads entanglement” in any war between the Philippines and China over their maritime claims.


An edited version of this interview first appeared in the Global Times, June 18, 2024

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