Gulf Province: six hours away & ignored
The testing times of Papa Joe

Australia needs help with its China problem

The dilemma of how Australia can reach a reasonable accommodation with China, just as Papua New Guinea and New Zealand have managed to do


NOOSA – When Bernard Yegiora recently published an essay on China’s relations with Australia and Papua New Guinea, some PNG Attitude readers were quick to criticise his views. Perfectly acceptable.

One reader was quick to criticise Bernard personally. Not acceptable, and I made clear my displeasure.

Bernard was, after all, articulating his version of PNG’s current policy on how its relationship with China is conducted.

The reaction of those readers who chose to comment taken as a whole was critical of China.

Now I want to take the next step of considering what Australia might do in the short term about its current dispute with a nation it has come to rely upon to a disproportionate extent.

I have no truck with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s brutal regime that has earned a deservedly dreadful reputation for its track record of oppression of minorities, corruption, arbitrary detention, curtailment of basic freedoms and cybercrime.

For a small power like Australia, whose major trading partner is China and whose greatest strategic ally is the United States, the times present a major problem.

Politico magazine’s editorial director for China, David Wertime, observed in April that the USA is seen by China as having lost cachet under the wretched Trump and in its stumbling response to the coronavirus.

These historic blunders, he says, will have lasting global and strategic consequences.

“The world is now seeing a preview of what life looks like with that check removed,” Wertime continues.

“Aggressive Chinese diplomats from Brussels to Chicago browbeating their hosts, global institutions adopting de facto Chinese leadership, and an increasingly exportable surveillance state.”

In our region we have witnessed greater Chinese expansion in commerce and development assistance, soft power initiatives that should not necessarily concern us.

But, beneath this activity, we perceive movement towards Chinese domination that must be abated if not stopped altogether.

So Australia’s response, I assume guided somewhat by the USA, has been to push back against China: sometimes materially (for example, by banning Huawei) but mostly rhetorically by resorting to ‘megaphone diplomacy’ or whispering sweet nothings to Taiwan.

The megaphone was taken up with enthusiasm by Australian government politicians early in 2020, seemingly without consideration of the consequences of attempting to bully or shame a country where the concept of ‘face’ (mianzi) is of such importance.

Mianzi is ‘dignity’ or ‘stature’ and to lose face is a terrible and humiliating experience to a person in Chinese culture, as it is in many cultures of Asia.

So the Chinese government, confident of its own power and requiring to project that power to realise its strategic goals, scrutinised the minnow Australia, understood how it could render a meaningful reactive hurt to these insults and, piece by piece, step by step, began to dismantle the import of many goods from Australia.

And as was intended, this is hurting Australia a lot. Further, if China leverages this response to include iron ore, it could throw the Australian economy into chaos and the country into a protracted recession.

Australia’s problem – which it has not yet managed to solve – is how to live in our region with a huge power which has its mind set on expansion while we retain our own sovereignty and contribute to the region’s ability to live on reasonable terms with the giant.

A hard task – which, as resorting to the megaphone has shown, our government has so far not displayed any ability to master.

This is where Papua New Guinea enters my discussion. And I do not need to reflect on his personal views to take seriously the essay by Bernard Yegiora, who wrote of how, since independence, PNG has methodically pursued a One China policy and “the principle of mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs”.

He also noted that “both countries are very careful not to interfere in a patronising way into the internal affairs of their bilateral partners which they understand would only strain their relationship”.

That is how PNG does it. And it has worked for PNG, so far. But relations between nations are often mercurial and, just like any country, PNG’s relationships are in a constant state of adjustment.

Now I want to look at another country in the region, culturally very close to Australia – New Zealand – and see how it gets on with China.

By 2018 the Chinese government had become increasingly annoyed about the direction New Zealand’s China policy was taking and relations between the two countries had seriously deteriorated.

But by February 2019, things were recovering and in April prime minister Jacinda Ardern visited Beijing after which the relationship had stabilised.

In an article in The Pacific Review, ‘Australia and New Zealand recalibrate their China policies’, Patrick Köllner tells how this was achieved.

“Unlike senior members of the Turnbull government in Australia, Ardern had very much shied away from any direct criticism of China,” Köllner explains.

“She assured Xi that China was a ‘valued partner’ and that its companies would not be discriminated against in New Zealand …. she said that all territorial issues in the region should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.

“She stayed clear of accusations levelled explicitly or implicitly at China [and she] emphasised that New Zealand did not pick sides but pursued a ‘principled approach that is not about the relative position of any other nation, regardless of whether they are partners or allies.”

Köllner points out that Ardern’s taking charge of China policy did not completely reverse the previous policy that had so annoyed China but it re-stabilised ties and ‘put a floor under the relationship’.

Australia is left with a country to its north that, and I stand to be corrected if this is too blunt, goes along with China and a country to its east which has developed a satisfactory working relationship with China while underscoring its own independent position.

Such positions are not forever taken. There are no permanent fixes in relations between nations. Adjustments will need to be made depending upon the relativities and outcomes of the volatile China-USA relationship. Some of these adjustments will be seismic.

But there is never any point in yelling at China. It’s too big. It’s too powerful. And it’s mostly on the front foot these days.

Australia – as does every other country in the region and beyond – has to learn to live with China.

And develop a reasonable accommodation with it.

That’s the challenge our government faces and maybe some convivial and collegial discussions with wise heads from Papua New Guinea and New Zealand could help.


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Arthur Williams

This headline on the net attracted my attention: 31/12/20 - 'Indonesian fisher finds underwater drone similar to Chinese sea gliders used for covert operations in South Sulawesi' by Shweta Sharma in The Independent (UK).

It had a picture of a submersible drone now in hands of the Indonesian military. It suggested why it was possibly found within their archipelagic waters. Then the newspaper informed us:

'The Chinese Sea Wings have a striking resemblance to the US Navy’s Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider (LBS-G) with only a few differences. In December 2016 a Chinese navy ship found a US LBS-G and seized the glider. It was eventually returned by Beijing after a diplomatic spar between the two countries.'

The news headlines, photo causes concern until you read that in fact the USA has been using the same hardware militarily in foreign oceans for possibly ten years or far more.

The Israelis are using unmanned armed surface drones to control Palestinian fishing vessels. I wouldn't be surprised if they too have these submersible ones in their arsenal as they operate in The Levant.

The newspaper report fits the sinophobic ethos we are now living in. It's similar to the reporting in Western media of the insidious cyber warfare that allegedly Putin and Xi Jinping control from their basements completely ignoring that the USA is the biggest snooping nation and guilty of the most blatant hegemony of the years since WW2 in a reversal of their espoused Monroe Doctrine.

My take on a lot of the hype of Huawei, Nord pipeline-2, USA sanctions against both friends and foes, even the intervention in Syria, can be explained if you follow the money as a 21st century equivalent of colonialism but this time being of a subtle economic variety.

Chips Mackellar

Superb summary of the situation, Keith. Thank you. Also good points made by Phil and Chris and Ed.

Your point about megaphone diplomacy and "losing face" is well taken. We should have learned our lesson when we caused the Indonesians to lose face over live animal exports. That could have been handled much better also.

The whole point is that when dealing with Asians, what matters is not what you say, but the way you say it. I know, because I am married to one. It is easy to get your point across provided that you say it in the right way. That is, without causing loss of face.

Let us hope that our leaders will learn how to do this.

Ed Brumby

Another excellent and well-balanced piece, Keith. I offer but two comments.

It is of interest (but no surprise) that Kevin Rudd has seemingly inserted himself into the narrative, managing to secure the attention of senior Chinese diplomatic officials when, apparently, PM Morrison and his ministerial colleagues have failed to do so.

Rudd's Mandarin capabilities and personal connections undoubtedly gave him some kind of edge.

As to iron ore, there is a good reason that at least three Chinese ports are being renovated and enlarged, namely that it will allow berthage to ore supercarriers.

This will enable cheaper transport of cheaper iron ore from either or both Africa and Brazil - so reducing China's dependence on Australian ore.

Keith Jackson

This is an extract from an article by Dr Dan (Diane) Hu, deputy director of the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The article is entitled ‘China-Australia Relations Doomed’, and it was republished today on John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations website. There is a link to the full article below.

It is more wishful thinking that following the media bombardment of negative news about China, an average Australian would be rational and calm enough to separate those from the Chinese Australians, Chinese students and tourists they meet in their everyday life.

After all, respectable Chinese Australians have already been asked in Parliamentary hearings to “unconditionally condemn” the Chinese Communist Party to demonstrate their allegiance.

However unwilling many are to admit it, Australia’s people-to-people connections and economic ties with China, stronger than to many western nations, are not without issues any more. On the contrary, anything related to China is an easy target of suspicion and scrutiny.

With both sides unlikely to back down in any of the above areas and shrinking policy space among megaphone diplomacy and unwise messaging, it is getting increasingly unrealistic to imagine a reset in China-Australia relations for the near future.

Chris Overland

Thanks for this very balanced assessment Keith. It is important to put some perspective into a a debate that tends to become fairly acrimonious at times.

So far as I can see, the only acceptable basis for a sensible relationship with China is one where we simply agree to disagree on some issues. Whether this is acceptable to a China seeking to forcefully assert its will and dominance in its self declared sphere of influence (being the whole of South East Asia at least) is an open question.

The Australian government appears to have dialled down the rhetoric on China quite noticeably over the last couple of months. This is tacit recognition that it's earlier megaphone diplomacy on Covid 19 and other matters has been counter productive.

One implication is that they are finally listening to the experts in DFAT who doubtless were cringing at the clumsy ineptitude of Scott Morrison as he, presumably at least, sought to align us more closely with the Trump regime.

I hope that our diplomats are now engaging in a few behind the scenes meetings with their Chinese counterparts, with a "full and frank exchange of views" taking place well outside of the media spotlight.

We will never have a completely comfortable relationship with China but we and they have certain common interests that we ought to be able to pursue without letting disagreements on other issues get in the road.

While we can and should forego megaphone diplomacy, we cannot surrender our right to criticise what we see or understand to be inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour by the Chinese government.

Conversely, we can expect to be called out for our own policy inconsistencies (e.g. West Papua) or outright hypocrisy (Asylum seekers) in some areas of significant internal political sensitivity. We will just have to suck this up as part of the price to be paid for speaking our truth to power.

So, Wolf Warrior diplomacy notwithstanding, there is a way forward if there is a willingness on both sides to reset the relationship.

I note that some vaguely conciliatory noises are now coming from Chinese diplomats that may signal that such a reset is feasible.

My guess would be that the significant self inflicted economic pain associated with China's decisions in relation to commodities like barley, wine, forestry products, meat and coal may be creating uncomfortable internal tensions. Powerful as he is, Xi Jinping cannot entirely ignore such tensions.

The pragmatists inside the Chinese government may be arguing that the point has been forcefully made about what is acceptable behaviour from Australia (and others) and it is time to bring us in from the cold.

We should be reinforcing this idea by offering certain concessions i.e. agreeing to not resort to megaphone diplomacy to make criticisms without first having exhausted behind the scenes efforts to make our point.

As for PNG, it has little power or influence that it can wield in relation to China. If Australia can be dismissed by one Chinese spokesperson as merely an annoying mosquito, then I guess PNG is much further down the insect hierarchy.

Of course, the tiny mosquito carries with it malaria and other diseases so maybe this analogy was not the best possible choice.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I can't make up my mind about China and its aspirations but I do know that the blundering approach by the Australian government hasn't helped the situation.

In this sense I think we can lay a large part of the blame for the situation, firstly on Donald Trump and his trade war and diplomatic blunders, and secondly on Scott Morrison for his enthusiastic and unthinking take-up of the Trump line.

That's not to excuse China for some of its obvious shortcomings, particularly in human rights. In that last respect one cannot excuse either the USA or Australia who are far from paragons of virtue themselves.

I think we are going to be paying for those four years of Trump for a very long time.

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