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Common sense, not mud-slinging, needed in China relationship

Last updated on 3 May 2020

by Colin Chapman

Some folks at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are increasingly worried about the escalating spat between Beijing and Canberra. They think it is getting out of hand. The publication by Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, of his version of a phone call received from DFAT’s head, Ms Frances Adamson, reflects this unease. Before her appointment as the country’s top diplomat four years ago, Ms Adamson had been head of Australia’s mission in Beijing and knows well how China’s Communist government works.

Ms Adamson called the Ambassador after the publication of bellicose comments by the editor-in-chief of  China’s state-owned Global Times. The article likened Australia to “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe” and stated that free trade ties between China and Australia would be jeopardised if the Coalition persisted with its demand for an independent enquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Other similar commentary from China makes it clear the Chinese leadership is angry and determined to bully Canberra into submission. 

Normal diplomatic policy when a country feels threatened or affronted is for the foreign minister to summon the offending country’s ambassador to the ministry to accept a diplomatically couched admonishment, especially when the issue at hand is political. In this case foreign minister Marise Payne deputed DFAT head Ms Adamson to the unenviable task of trying to calm things down. In doing so, she appears to have expressed her own doubts about pushing for an inquiry.

Enter Scott Morrison, who has done much to repair his leadership credentials with adept handling of the Covid-19 epidemic, after falling short with the January bushfire crisis. The prime minister refused to be cowed by China’s bullying tactics, saying it was “entirely reasonable and sensible” to call for an independent investigation into how it started, “so we can learn the lessons and prevent it happening again”.

And so it is. Morrison is not alone. Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor, is among many who support the call. Alexander Downer, former foreign minister in the Howard government, in an article in the Australian Financial Reviewwhen further, demanding the Chinese leadership be held to account.

But the timing of Morrison’s call for international support was bad. Although he made it clear that he was acting independently of the incumbent in the White House, his statement to the Canberra press corps came only four days after Trump had railed against Beijing for starting the pandemic. The Chinese state scribblers seized the opportunity, accusing Morrison of being a lackey of the American president.

Yet neither Australian nor other Five Eyes intelligence sources, including the Pentagon, have any evidence – despite claims in the British and other tabloid press – that the virus leaked out from a Wuhan anti-virus laboratory. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Morrison told Cabinet that he believes the virus originated, as the Chinese suggest, in the city’s wet market. Whatever the source of the virus, the Chinese authorities are culpable in covering up its breakout. Taken together, these factors justify an independent investigation and make it a necessity. It is not realistic to expect Xi Jinping and his colleagues in the Communist Party Central Committee to agree to it, as they know they will be found wanting.

So, what strategy should the Morrison government and the country generally adopt towards restoring Sino-Australian relations? I believe two approaches are required and they should run in parallel. First, as Morrison is already doing, avoid a slanging match with China. Do not respond to the rhetoric of the Chinese media or rise to the bait. Ignore Chinese threats to cut imports from Australia and to reduce the number of Chinese students enrolling in our universities.

SBS report asks whether Australian universities are too dependent on Chinese students.

Which leads to the second point. If Xi is petty enough to target Australian universities, so be it. There is an imbalance anyway. Sure, the universities will have to suffer a one-time reduction in income, and the weaker ones will have to chop out some of the weaker courses – media studies for a start.  But the adjustment, though painful, might lead to higher standards. It would be a good step towards reducing our universities’ dependency on Chinese students. 

Australia should also look at supply chains. Many other countries that do not want to be dependent on China, including Canada, the United States and now the European Union, are seeking and finding alternative sources for vital imports from other parts of Asia and Latin America. We should do the same. This should a gradual change, with diplomacy following suit, strengthening relations with ASEAN and Latin America. 

We are going to hear much discussion and argument about the China relationship in coming days. Next week the Australia-China Relations Institute at Sydney’s University of Technology will publish a detailed analysis on this important issue, including an assessment of the prospects for diversification of Australian economic relationships. It will be well-informed and is expected to reject the kind of policies advocated in the U.S.

The China relationship is the most important foreign policy issue on the prime minister’s desk, and it is one where common sense must prevail. As my old friend Stephen Fitzgerald, Australia’s first ambassador to Beijing, put it a couple of days ago, “It is no help for either side to be engaging in tit-for-tat.“  Dr Fitzgerald bemoans the fact that neither the foreign minister nor anyone in the federal government feels able to call a counterpart in Beijing and say “right, let’s work it out”.  How sad, and how true.

Related stories:

Trump seeking to use intelligence to link virus with Wuhan lab, reports New York Times.

Scott Morrison distances himself from Trump’s claim – ABC News.

Nationalism on the rise – China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ and ‘Little Pinks’ –Australian Financial Review.

European divisions over pandemic threaten EU project, by Colin Chapman.

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