25 Jan 2019
Shared interests and mutual respect absent from China ties
In my time as deputy secretary for strategy in Defence, I shared hosting duties for the visit to Canberra in May 2010 of a Chinese four-star general, the vice-chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong.
Members of the general’s sizeable entourage clearly were in mortal fear of him, their only interest to make sure he had access to sufficiently senior ministers and received all the meagre pomp and ceremony the Australian Defence Force could deliver.
How the mighty fall: in 2016 Guo was sentenced by a closed Chinese court to life in prison for taking tens of millions of dollars in bribes. The charges were most likely true, but Guo’s real crime was to be a supporter of Jiang Zemin, a predecessor of President Xi Jinping, and to place Jiang supporters in senior military jobs.
According to the South China Morning Post, Guo “made Xi Jinping very unhappy”, so it was not surprising that Guo, along with other Jiang supporters, was purged by Xi, using the so-called independent Chinese legal system to do so.
This is the broader context in which to understand the disappearance of Australian-Chinese author Yang Hengjun, followed by Beijing’s belated admission that Yang had been “detained”.
In China there is no rule of law as we recognise it in Australia.
In China there is no rule of law as we recognise it in Australia. The law in China is subordinate to the interests of the Communist Party. It is therefore highly unlikely that Yang’s arrest is an administrative error or a coincidence. The detention should be read as a signal to Canberra.
Pity Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, whose arrival in Beijing coincided with this announcement. Pyne’s media release preview of the visit said: “The government is committed to maintaining a long-term constructive relationship with China, founded on shared interests and mutual respect — China and Australia’s success will go hand in hand.”
Well, good luck with that. Australia has no shared interest in China’s arbitrary use of detention to silence critics or ethnic minorities, nor is there any prospect of a long-term constructive relationship with China when the Chinese Communist Party can direct the police and intelligence agencies at whim to take people off the streets, interrogate and torture them all while the courts turn a blind eye.
As for mutual respect, in my dealings with the Chinese military I detected a grudging admiration for the professionalism and capabilities of the ADF, but for the most part China regards its smaller neighbours with contempt. As the Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi once famously told Southeast Asian foreign ministers: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”
“China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”
As we saw recently in Nauru at the Pacific Islands Forum and in Port Moresby at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting, China’s contemptuous treatment of Pacific Island leaders is a clear indication that mutual respect is not part of its diplomatic lexicon.
There is good reason to see a link between the detention of Yang Hengjun and China’s imprisonment of several Canadian citizens and the sentencing to death of Canadian drug-smuggler Robert Schellenberg.
These developments took place after the US Justice Department sought to extradite a Huawei senior executive, Meng Wanzhou, from Canada to face charges in the US for Huawei’s sanctions busting by selling goods to Iran.
The Communist Party’s world view is that it uses its legal system with impunity to achieve political objectives — and that surely is what every other country does as well. Beijing interprets the attempt to extradite Meng as part of Donald Trump’s political strategy to pressure China on trade and of course Canada must be part of that conspiracy as well. Beijing sees this as an exercise in mutual hostage-taking. It simply does not credit US, Canadian or Australian statements that our legal systems operate independently from political direction. In this China has received quite bizarre assistance from Canada’s ambassador in Beijing, John McCallum, who briefed media to the effect that Meng “has some strong arguments she can make before a judge”.
McCallum’s statement will take some explaining to his bosses in Ottawa and to Washington because it runs counter to claims that Canada simply is following international legal agreements.
Australia is drawn into the US-Canada-China dispute because our political leaders have, entirely appropriately, expressed concerns about the detention of Canadian citizens and the levying of the death penalty on Schellenberg. The Chinese official reaction to that was to say last week: “Actually, you can count by the fingers of your hand the few allies of Canada that chose to side with it on this issue.”
As one of those “few allies” supporting Canada, it is unsurprising that an Australian citizen has been detained.
Canberra’s only option at this point is to press China publicly for details of Yang’s detention and to call for his prompt release. And we should stop pretending that “shared interests and mutual respect” are the core of our relationship with China. The reality is far from that aspiration.