09 Dec 2017
China-Australia relations likely to remain strong despite influence-buying row
Australia-China relations are by no means as fragile as some of Beijing’s local cheer squad would have you believe.
That’s notwithstanding the ill-considered language used by the Chinese embassy this week, which said that reporting about Chinese influence-buying in Australia was “made up out of thin air and filled with Cold War mentality and ideological bias”, and that it “reflected a typical anti-China hysteria”.
The embassy spokesman claimed: “China has no intention to interfere in Australia’s internal affairs or exert influence on its political process through political donations.” What else could they say? The embassy staff undoubtedly will be worried that their report card is being poorly graded by their bosses in Beijing — can’t you get these Australians to quieten down?
We should expect more angry denunciations from the embassy and, in Lenin’s phrase, the “useful idiots” who loyally echo the Chinese Communist Party’s line.
The outrage hides obvious embarrassment that China’s covert and semi-overt ways of cultivating influence in Australian political and public life are being exposed.
On Thursday, in the dying hours of parliament’s final session for the year, Malcolm Turnbull introduced a series of bills that would strengthen legal penalties against “covert, coercive or corrupt” attempts at foreign interference; “shine light” on the actions of people who engaged “with the Australian political landscape on behalf of a foreign state or principal”, and make it illegal for foreign entities to give money to political parties and ginger groups.
The Prime Minister’s strong statement to parliament deserves careful reading. In August last year, Turnbull asked his intelligence agencies for a report on “foreign states exerting improper influence over our system of government”. Crucially, he said this week that ASIO “had made significant investigative breakthroughs and delivered a series of very grave warnings … Our system as a whole had not grasped the nature and the magnitude of the threat.
“The findings of the report are necessarily classified. But I can say the reasons for initiating this work were justified and the outcomes have galvanised us to take action.”
Turnbull is careful to say that China is not the only foreign power seeking to exert covert influence. He mentions Russia, North Korea and Iran.
But when it comes to espionage and subversion in Australia, China is the elephant in the room.
The reaction to the introduction of these tough new anti-spying and subversion laws should be one of relief. For too long some Australian politicians of all stripes — and too many senior officials who should have known better — have remained wilfully blind to obvious attempts at Chinese cultivation and manipulation.
It is astonishing how a combination of greed and naivety can strike otherwise intelligent people dumb. There is now at least the hope that some spine has been injected into our political system.
Protecting our national interests is unlikely to damage the fundamentals of our relations with China. As Turnbull said in parliament, “Our relationship with China is far too important to put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of healthy and sustainable engagement.”
In other words, if we let ourselves be treated as curs, the Chinese will oblige, but they will probably respect us more if they conclude we demand to be treated as equals, not vassals.
The core of Australia’s relationship with China is that we are a stable and reliable long-term supplier of natural resources. It’s often said that China can switch markets, but not without substantial delay and cost. People-to-people connections will remain strong. Australia’s attractiveness to many Chinese is precisely because we are a democracy that protects individual rights. The new legislation should provide comfort to Chinese Australians that Beijing’s apparatchiks can’t tell them what to think.
A final reason to be confident that China won’t overreact to Australia’s new-found self-respect is that punishing us through economic coercion would show the rest of the world that China has reached a new phase of global bullying. That’s the last thing President Xi Jinping needs in his quest to replace the US as the world’s indispensable partner.
China will take the rap on the knuckles, try to improve the trade-craft of its clunky intelligence apparatus and look for less gratuitous ways to shape local opinion in its favour. The game plays on.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.