Politics Opinion

Diplomacy dies on the dung-hill of Australia-China relations

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

In dealing with the expansion of Chinese power and influence in our region, the Morrison Government has displayed little diplomatic skill or maturity, writes Geoffrey Dyer.

“HOW GOOD” are Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton? By reframing our relationship with China as the "China threat" and investing billions with American arms dealers, they have not made Australia, or the world, a safer place.

In dealing with the expansion of Chinese power and influence in our region, the Morrison Government has displayed little diplomatic skill or maturity. 

Jointly, our PM and defence minister approach national security with all the charm of schoolyard bullies — with lashings of self-interest, bombast and little understanding, or care, for the interests of Australia as an independent nation in the Indo-Pacific.

International relationships are complex. Clashes between the United States (our closest ally) and China (our biggest trading partner) have left Australia in an invidious position, where all choices are difficult. However, casual talk by politicians and the Murdoch media, of war with China, is not helping matters.

Ex-PM Paul Keating was right to say that 'Morrison is making an enemy of China'. With the LNP Government incompetent and disengaged on so many fronts, Morrison is desperate to be seen as a strongman, protecting Australia by standing up to China. 

He cynically resuscitates the dead cat of the "yellow peril" to distract from his domestic problems, building fear in the electorate and projecting his own domestic need for a new Operation Sovereign Borders onto the international stage.

With an election approaching, no Tampa on the horizon and punishing refugees with decades of internment losing public popularity, our marketing man needs a new trophy on his desk — "I stopped China".

Party polling supports such a "clever" manoeuvre on the home front. Spending billions on submarines, tanks and planes is spun as a strong commitment to Australia’s defence. The LNP avoid mentioning that the submarines won’t materialise for decades and that tanks are surplus to requirements unless needed to stop women marching on Parliament. 

Morrison and Dutton going nuclear and spending billions on sandpit toys, while displaying a belligerent attitude towards China, represents a greater threat to Australia’s place in the world than Xi Jinping

We are located in the Indo-Pacific and that’s where our security priorities should be. Overreaching our geopolitical centre to project power into disputed territorial waters and land that has been nominally Chinese since Imperial times is neither necessary nor sustainable.

Yet, the guy from “down under, as Biden called him, has committed Australia to a forever military friendship with a nation that, until recently, had Donald Trump as its commander-in-chief. In his haste to wedge Labor, Morrison has thrown diplomacy out of the window and built a bigger and deeper wall between us and our largest trading partner. No part of his fog-horn political spin is in Australia’s best interests.

Since elected, Morrison has systematically undermined our relationship with China.

He started by saying:

“We will work constructively with China as we always have.” 

He then displayed his real intentions as he enthusiastically echoed then U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-China sentiments.

Trump’s trade war on China – based on a massive trade imbalance between the superpowers – did little to remedy the situation but gained popular support. He boasted at rallies that extreme attacks on China were the main reason for his election win over Hillary Clinton. It was central to his America First policy and slogan.

Morrison, aware of Trump’s election tactic, should have also been aware that Australia’s economic, trade and community links with China have underpinned Australia’s prosperity for decades.

Regardless, cheered on by the Murdoch press, Morrison placed Australia in the front line of criticism of China. This stance cost Australia various markets as China switched to the United States to appease Trump while punishing Australia for supporting him.

Undeterred, the LNP led the way by rejecting Chinese investments; funding an anti-China think tank; warning Australian universities not to work on joint projects with their Chinese counterparts; threatening war over Taiwan; leading objections to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and demanding that China let investigators into Wuhan. The loyalty of Chinese Australian citizens was even questioned in Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese see the Morrison Government’s moves, speeches and media releases as threatening — impinging on their sovereignty, discriminating against their investments and interfering with their development. Rejecting Chinese partnerships and influence (while accepting others) is seen as insulting and disrespectful.

As a result, Australia’s relationship with China is in a downward spiral of mutual distrust and negativity. Sadly, Morrison is bent on marketing this deteriorating relationship for domestic political purposes. 

In the age of Brexit and Trump, Morrison is alive to the popular appeal of nationalism. Neither he nor his ministers are listening to diplomatic or military advice. They’re whipping up fear of China and playing games with our alliances in a bid for domestic popularity. A modern “All the way with LBJ,” without a thought for the consequences.

Changes in the international balance of power are inevitable. As nations grow and prosper, or gain technological advantages, their influence changes. Does this mean war is inevitable? Is our vision of the future so narrow that we pursue conflict rather than compromise, respect and cooperation?

President Xi Jinping told world leaders:

“China is working hard to bridge differences through dialogue, resolve disputes through negotiations and pursue friendly and cooperative relations with other countries.”

Was he lying, as Trump and Morrison so often do? 

It is true that President Xi’s "belt and road" initiatives are building a web of Chinese influence around the world. China is building rail and airlines, roads, shipping lanes and investing in international ports — trillions of dollars of investment aimed at securing the flow of food, water, energy and security to the nation with the world’s largest population.

China can be coercive and bullying to its less powerful neighbours and is not beyond, like Morrison, using external conflicts to distract from internal issues. Trust is lacking on all sides and needs to be re-established.

There is no doubt that we should maintain our long-established ties with the UK and the USA, but it is vital that we prioritise friendship, cooperation and security among nations within our own region. Overhyped announcements, like AUKUS, embracing an Anglo-American colonial club, do little to reassure our Indo-Pacific neighbours of our ties to them. 

As two Chinese military supply ships arrive in Tonga to provide much needed and requested disaster relief alongside the HMAS Adelaide, it might be worth reassessing our priorities.

Nonetheless, Australia’s defence minister, Peter Dutton, with an eye to raising his own visibility prior to the next election, only sees an enemy. He is making it un-Australian to speak of friendship with China. He claims Labor is weak on China and has accused Senator Penny Wong of not standing up for Australian values. 

The lack of maturity shown by ministers and backbenchers – in their drive to wedge Labor and beat up a populist vote – is as sickening as it is dangerous and economically damaging. China is far from being without fault but these tit-for-tat exchanges are a poor reflection on our diplomatic capabilities and our Government’s priorities.

In an encouraging sign of rapprochement, China's new ambassador to Australia recently spoke of getting the relationship 'back to the right track'. Government ministers’ responses were overwhelmingly negative. Farcically, Peter Dutton dismissed the ambassador’s words, saying it was important to keep international focus on China's "belligerent" approach. 

Resetting our relationship with China is not part of his or Morrison’s election narrative. Fixing problems is not what they are about. 

Hopefully, a new government will have different priorities; tap into the expertise of our diplomatic and military experts to re-establish ties; overcome conflicts of interest, and set common goals. We need leaders with a vision of a cooperative future, not political party hacks focused only on the electoral cycle.

If you depict someone as "the enemy", that is what they will become.

Geoffrey Dyer is a retired teacher with 41 years of experience in the classroom. Subjects taught include English, Modern and Ancient History, Society and Culture, Aboriginal Studies.

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