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We’ll be on this rollercoaster for years

By Peter Jennings

After another tumultuous week in the Australia-China relationship, four conclusions are becoming increasingly clear. First, we are going to be on this rollercoaster ride for years. National positions are hardening. Neither Beijing nor Canberra will back down and the prospects for negotiation are zero given China’s “wolf warrior” mania.

Second, Scott Morrison and his senior ministers look increasingly confident in their stance to seek “a balance in favour of freedom”. The language used about relations with China is careful but is becoming clearer and more definitive. There is something to be said for knowing when your back is hard up against a strategic wall.

Third, the Chinese Communist Party’s rhetoric suggests a hint of panic is seeping in. Statements from the Chinese embassy in Canberra and from the foreign ministry in Beijing are as shrill as they are counter-productive, implicitly threatening those who engage in “the despicable tactic of smearing China on the Australian side”.

Beijing’s usual Australian support base has largely gone to ground and public opinion has swung significantly against the People’s Republic.

A fourth lesson is that, for Australia, our ability to draw on strong alliances and deep friendships with like-minded democracies is the reason we will prevail against Beijing. The challenge is to keep these relationships strong. New Zealand aside, there is a positive international agenda to pursue and a growing interest in Canberra to shape up to this opportunity.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s decision to cancel Victoria’s Memorandum of Understanding, and Framework Agreement “jointly promoting the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” ended Daniel Andrews’s embarrassing venture into foreign policy.

Beijing’s desire to get state and territory governments to “sign up” to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative was designed to undermine Canberra. The federal government and opposition took the view that Australia should not provide a blank cheque endorsement for China’s strategic plan to dominate global transport infrastructure from Europe to the Pacific Ocean.

Between 2015 and 2018, 139 countries signed Belt and Road MOUs with China — this was a major political effort, promoted in the developing world with soft loans, to buy international political endorsement for a key Xi policy initiative.

The Council on Foreign Relations, a respected US think tank, judges that “the push to get countries to join BRI is likely motivated less by a desire to build infrastructure and more by a goal of increasing China’s narrative power … that Beijing is an economic power on par with the United States”.

In effect, Andrews fell hook, line and sinker into a PRC political trap. Imagine an Australian government trying to get a Chinese province to sign a MOU endorsing Scott Morrison’s Pacific step-up. Beijing of course would veto such a deal on the grounds that China’s provinces had no foreign policy business endorsing an Australian strategic objective.

While the Chinese embassy decried the MOU’s cancellation as “another unreasonable and provocative move taken by the Australian side against China”, the real provocation here was the naked attempt to turn a state government against the commonwealth, abetted with the usual coterie of Australian influencers and businesspeople intent on making money.

Comments from the Chinese embassy have become increasingly incomprehensible. Wang Xining, the mission’s deputy, told the National Press Club: “China is not a cow. I don’t think anybody should fancy the idea to milk China when she’s in her prime and plot to slaughter it in the end.”

Perhaps this is why Beijing refused last week to renew licences for Australian farmers to export hay to China’s growing domestic dairy industry?

This latest effort in economic coercion, to punish Australia for exercising its political sovereignty, is yet another example of the lack of strategic thinking in China’s actions. Australia exports oaten hay to China’s rapidly growing dairy industry. This is widely regarded as a high-quality, palatable feedstock, preferable to alfalfa, straw or other cereal hays exported by other countries.

While the Chinese ban will inconvenience Australian farmers, it is likely they will be able to find other markets for their oaten hay, just as barley farmers did a few months ago. In the meantime Chinese dairy farmers lose access to the best available product for their cows.

Contrary to criticism from the opposition, government ministers are picking their words carefully and not reacting to the sillier comments from Beijing. Against the signs of an increasingly panicky Chinese Communist Party, Morrison’s senior ministers look and sound more assured.

Payne’s use of Australia’s Foreign Relations Act to cancel Victor­ia’s Belt and Road agreements was calm and sensible, as was Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s measured statement on Friday that “we’re not going to have our values compromised, we aren’t going to surrender our sovereignty”.

Payne foreshadowed that while the “overwhelming majority” of foreign agreements would not be affected, it was possible that some would be cancelled.

High on the government’s list for consideration must surely be the dozen or so secret agreements bringing Confucius Institutes on to Australian university campuses. The way these institutes function is surely an anathema to what should be a central university value for fiercely independent research.

To sustain the funding flow from Confucius Institutes, universities run the risk that courses on Chinese history or international relations cannot discuss Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the illegal annexation of the South China Sea, human rights and other topics discomforting to Beijing. It’s way past time the institutes were closed.

It’s also past time that the government took decisive steps to end the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company, Landbridge.

Readers will recall the farcical circumstances in which the port was leased in 2015, at the same time Australian foreign and defence ministers were meeting their US counterparts in Boston and agreeing to “pursue enhanced naval co-operation across all domains, including additional combined training and exercises”.

Whatever initial promises for economic development made to the Northern Territory government by Landbridge, the reality is that not much is happening. Landbridge has suspended plans to build a luxury hotel near the port and advises that “if we don’t resume work by end of June 2021 Landbridge will not continue with the project”.

So much for a long-term perspective. Meantime, some creative thought applied to the future of the US Marine Corps presence in the Top End, and to Japan’s liquefied natural gas export interests located there, could transform the port into a thriving military and export hub, involving ever-closer co-operation between three of the Indo-Pacific’s most consequential democracies.

Working with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last week, opinion polling company TrueNorth Strategy tested public opinion on the Port of Darwin. The nationwide survey found 85 per cent of Australians agreed that the port should be returned to Australian management due to increased tensions with China.

The same survey found that 89 per cent of people polled believed Australia and its allies should commit to defending an independent democratic state in our region if it were threatened or attacked by the People’s Republic of China, and 80 per cent supported recent government announcements to expand defence manufacturing to build missiles for our defence force.

When it comes to defence and security, governments need to do what is right for Australia’s interests, not necessarily what is popular, but it’s clear that public opinion has been ahead of government on the big strategic issues for some time.

A decision to end the Port of Darwin lease will be well received domestically, by our key allies and in the region, which looks to Australia to play a strengthening role in security during troubled times.

And so to New Zealand, described by Rudyard Kipling on his visit in 1891 as “last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart”.

Sadly, the word that best describes New Zealand foreign policy under Jacinda Ardern is “apart”.

Wellington wants the defence and intelligence benefit of being part of the Five Eyes grouping without ever having to rock what Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta described in a speech last week as, “New Zealand’s diplomatic relationship with the (sic) China has been steadfast for nearly 50 years”.

Mahuta’s speech was piled high with platitudes about how important it was for New Zealand “to stay true to ourselves”, but nowhere does that translate into clear expressions of disapproval for Beijing’s bad behaviour, or words of support for New Zealand’s democratic allies.

Here’s one example of this evasive moralism: “Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country agnostic manner. We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country’s actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights.”

Does “country agnostic” mean Wellington disapproves of the mass detention centres imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang but can’t mention China by name?

New Zealand remains an important ally of Australia, one in which we have under-invested over the decades, failing to sustain a measure of common thinking on key strategic issues.

We should hope that Payne was able to convey the thought to Mahuta and Ardern that Wellington should keep an eye on how it is travelling with Canberra’s policymakers as much as it worries about Beijing.

If New Zealand truly no longer wants to pay its Five Eyes dues, Australia has a vastly more significant and capable partner in Japan. Big strategic thinking would say that it’s time to bring Japan into the Five Eyes fold.

Originally published by: theaustralian.com.au on 24 Apr 2021