08 Jun 2019
The many ways in which China is pushing us around … without resistance
When the Chinese navy flotilla berthed in Sydney in front of an adoring crowd of Chinese Australians this week, you can be sure the timing and look of the event had been planned in every detail, right down to the professionally painted welcome signs.
Nothing is left to chance in the way the Communist Party commands the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The ships did not arrive off Sydney last week by accident and the party would clearly get the diversionary value of making China’s biggest naval port call to Australia on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
...China is now a global military power...
The visit reinforces the party’s domestic message that China is now a global military power. As the more strident of the party’s English-language newspapers, The Global Times, wrote a few days ago: “A strong Chinese navy is the guarantee for peace and stability of the South China Sea and even the whole world.”
When the Australian navy makes port visits, the intent is to promote goodwill: ships are open for inspection and visitors are hosted by smiling sailors. By contrast, and as The Australian recorded, the PLA vessels were guarded by heavily armed crew looking more like special forces soldiers on operations. The ships were off-limits to all but the most trusted local backers, and the usual blackout applied to Australian media.
We should be asking: what were our objectives in hosting the flotilla? Who in Canberra thought it a good idea to allow the ships to arrive on the Tiananmen anniversary? One version is that an arrival date had not been agreed and the ships just turned up.
...PLA Navy’s presence ensured our politicians muted their comments about the massacre...
Whatever the reality, the PLA Navy’s presence ensured our politicians muted their comments about the massacre.
In Honiara, Scott Morrison would not answer questions on the anniversary and said the Foreign Minister would express the government’s views. A 47-word media release from Marise Payne noted the anniversary without saying who ordered the guns to guns to be turned on the students.
The statement expressed the gentlest of concerns about “continuing constraints on freedom of association, expression and political participation in China”, as though the problem is a bit of constitutional trimming rather than the behaviour of a dictatorship.
Australia’s willingness to look the other way in the face of an increasingly assertive China has been evident since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. At one level it’s understandable. During the years of China’s so called “peaceful rise” it seemed possible that as the Chinese economy grew, we could get rich without compromising our national security interests.
That time has passed. Australian governments must now handle a complicated relationship with Beijing, where our differences of national interest cannot be papered over. Our reflex instinct to tolerate Beijing’s bad behaviour will damage us. If China’s leaders conclude that Australia will tolerate any slight, no one should be surprised if their ill-disguised disregard of us continues.
Many times, Australian governments have chosen to overlook hostile and damaging Chinese behaviour, based on public service advice that turning the other cheek would save our economy from Beijing’s “punishment”.
In cyber security, China is a sophisticated and persistent aggressor, seeking to steal intellectual property from Australia’s universities and businesses while gathering intelligence on government and political secrets. Trying to persuade Beijing to limit this wholesale cyber theft, Australia held its first (and so far only) Australia-China High Level Security Dialogue in April 2017. A joint statement “agreed not to conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets or confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage”.
The party official at the meeting, Meng Jianzhu, was told how much Australian agencies knew about Chinese hacking in the hope that “naming and shaming” might improve behaviour. Of course, the spying has only gotten worse.
China has been outed as comprehensively infiltrating the Australian National University’s IT network. There have been public revelations about “sophisticated state actors” using cyber means to attack the Australian parliament, the Liberal, Labor and National party headquarters and, just this week, the ANU for a second time.
The “sophisticated’’ actor is China’s Ministry of State Security. Our government won’t say that, for fear of Beijing’s punishment.
A second example has been China’s annexation of the South China Sea and building of three large air bases on reclaimed land. In 2016 our government, lacking confidence in the Obama administration’s willingness to oppose China’s illegal annexation, decided not to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations near any “contested feature”. Julie Bishop said in March 2018: “What we won’t do is unilaterally provoke an increase in tensions” by sailing too close to the islands. Astonishingly, this reversed the onus of responsibility for destabilising the region.
If the aim had been to prompt an improvement in Chinese behaviour, Australia’s softly-softly approach has achieved the opposite. The Global Times editorialised in 2015 that “it would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian”, and only a few days ago an Australian helicopter operating in the South China Sea was “lased” from a so-called Chinese fishing vessel. Lasing is a hostile act designed to damage flyers’ optic nerves. Defence chose not to reveal the incident publicly, saying instead that its Chinese counterparts “were friendly, they were professional and said g’day”.
So, Chinese paramilitary units commit a hostile act against an Australian helicopter in international airspace and, far from objecting to such unacceptable and highly risky behaviour, Australia’s response is to welcome the PLA Navy into Sydney Harbour.
Only a few days after the Prime Minister revealed Australia’s political parties had been hacked by a sophisticated state actor, our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced substantially increased funding would be provided for “a new and innovative National Foundation for Australia-China Relations”. A media release claimed: “This new initiative reflects the Australian government’s commitment to a constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests, mutual benefit and mutual respect.”
“Mutual respect”: is DFAT serious? But the list of slights and Australian non-responses goes on. In January, an Australian-Chinese national, Yang Hengjun, was detained without charge by Chinese state security police. Days later a five-line DFAT statement said officials were “seeking to clarify the nature of this detention”, and that’s all that was said publicly.
Finally, there is Chinese company Huawei. Last August, the federal government took the right decision to exclude from the 5G network any companies that “are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflict with Australian law”. Huawei’s response is to claim that the decision, which was bipartisan, is “politically motivated, not the result of a fact-based, transparent, or equitable decision-making process”.
Last month, Huawei invited some Australian organisations (not ASPI) on an all-expenses-paid visit to China. Huawei Technologies (Australia) chairman John Lord said: “As your organisation is often called on by the media and government to comment or provide advice about the Australia-China relationship, Huawei wishes to invite you or a colleague to join an Australian think tank study tour to refresh or broaden your understanding of our largest trading partner.” The visit proposes extensive briefings with Australian diplomatic staff in Guangdong, Shanghai and Beijing. So, here we have one part of government, DFAT, supporting the efforts of Huawei to influence Australian institutions “that comment or provide advice” to other parts of government about policy decisions already taken.
The Morrison government must get its thinking on China into coherent shape. Silence in the face of bad behaviour only encourages more bad behaviour. Naive attempts to curry favour by funding activities in the name of “mutual respect” fool no one.
Having considered every other option first, ultimately our government will need to behave a bit more like China, by strongly promoting our national interests, speaking plainly in defence of core values and explaining our strategic priorities to the Australian public.
In the unlikely event that Beijing does respond with punishment, our leaders will have the consolation of having behaved according to the values that we claim inform our foreign policy.