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Australia’s ‘amateurish’ China diplomacy sets business on edge

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This week marks the fifth anniversary of the China-Australia free trade deal, a diplomatic triumph that has boosted trade by A$100bn a year. But no one is celebrating in Canberra amid a breakdown in bilateral relations, which has sparked a rare debate about Australian diplomacy.

Foreign policy is characterised by bipartisan agreement between Labor and the conservative government, which has held power since 2013. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s furious reaction to a tweet by a Chinese diplomat and Beijing’s imposition of trade sanctions on Australian products have caused disquiet about the handling of China relations.

“I think the government really does need to stop focusing on splashy headlines and work out what is it doing, how is it helping our exporters, how is it helping those who are so dependent, and have become more dependent on China for Australian jobs,” Penny Wong, Labor spokesman on foreign affairs, told Australian television last week.

“In diplomacy you always have to think about how you calibrate your response.”

Ms Wong’s criticism was directed at Mr Morrison’s decision to respond directly to a mid-level Chinese diplomat’s “repugnant” social media post, which depicted an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

The government has dismissed Labor’s criticism, noting that the opposition party has backed all its main policies, including excluding Huawei from 5G networks, combating foreign interference and calling for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

“They [Labor] are in lockstep with the government,” said Dave Sharma, an MP for the ruling Liberal party and former diplomat.

“The same party which always urges Australia to be a ‘creative middle power’ seems to have a problem when Australia articulates its viewpoint on the world stage. You cannot have it both ways.”

Nevertheless, some commentators and businesses fear Canberra is quietly departing from its long-held position that it does not have to choose between China, its largest trade partner, and the US, its strategic ally.

“Australian foreign policy with respect to China has been weaponised, and it’s largely because I feel the security, intelligence and defence establishment has taken over the management on Australia’s foreign policy over the past six years,” said Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China, who runs a consultancy.

Mr Raby warned that Canberra’s decision to rejoin “the Quad” — a strategic partnership of Japan, the US and India — following an American description of China as a “strategic competitor” in 2017 had tied Canberra to Washington’s hip.

Trumpeting policy shifts directed towards China, such as banning Huawei from 5G or tough foreign interference laws, had needlessly irritated Beijing, said Mr Raby.

Seething diplomatic and trade tensions have also alarmed Australian businesses, which have publicly urged Canberra to pursue a reset with Beijing. In private, an executive at a multibillion-dollar company with Chinese partners told the Financial Times that the government’s diplomatic strategy had been “amateurish”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose diplomatic push back against China, Australia’s largest trading partner, has come under fire © Getty Images

The deterioration in Sino-Australian relations has been swift and painful. Back in 2014, China’s president Xi Jinping was accorded the rare honour of addressing Australia’s parliament. His speech lauded the “oceans of goodwill” between the nations and laid the groundwork for a trade deal, which boosted two way trade to a record A$252bn ($191bn) last year.

But in the past six months, Beijing has slapped tariffs on barley and wine and is disrupting imports of many other Australian goods. Chinese ministers refuse to return calls from their Australian counterparts and its diplomats are deploying confrontational “wolf warrior” tactics, such as leaking a 14-point memo to media blaming Canberra for the breakdown.

Mr Morrison declared last month that Canberra did not want to be forced into a “binary choice” between superpowers.

“Our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States,” Mr Morrison said. “It’s as if Australia does not have its own unique interests or views as an independent sovereign state.” 

There is no doubt, said analysts, that managing China relations has become more challenging as Beijing asserts its national interests and the US pushes back. Beijing’s territorial land grabs in the South China Sea, its crackdown in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang have alarmed diplomats, they said.

Many China scholars support Canberra’s forthright approach in defending its values, including demanding an apology from Beijing over the tweet, which followed Canberra’s publication last month of a critical war crimes report. Labor also condemned the post, although it has urged the government to respond strategically, rather than “be emotional”.

James Curran, professor of history at University of Sydney, said the failing in Canberra’s diplomacy towards Beijing has not been the substance of its policy but rather the presentation. In particular, the decision to call for a Covid-19 inquiry was a mis-step, owing to the lack of consultation with China and other nations.

Mr Curran said Canberra’s naivety had left it exposed to economic coercion from Beijing, which has used Australia as a warning to other nations of the risk of getting too close to the US.

Other countries, such as New Zealand, have been more successful by speaking out in concert with allies against Beijing, for example regarding political repression in Hong Kong, without suffering a backlash, he said.

“Some Australian analysts have not hesitated to state that not only is Australia at the vanguard of ‘pushing back’ against China,” said Mr Curran. “But will America come to Australia’s aid in terms of our export markets that have been affected? No.”

2014

President Xi Jinping delivers speech in Australian parliament noting the “vast oceans of goodwill between China and Australia”

2015

China-Australia trade deal signed, boosting trade by A$100bn within five years

2016

Australian senator pinpointed in foreign interference controversy involving a Chinese billionaire with alleged ties to Chinese Communist party

2017

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declares in Mandarin the Australian people will “stand up” against foreign interference and pledges tough new laws

2018

Australia becomes the first western power to ban Huawei and ZTE from its 5G networks 

April 2020

Canberra calls for inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan

November 2020

Beijing imposes trade sanctions on Australian products. Chinese diplomat rebuked by Canberra for Twitter post depicting a soldier committing war crimes

December 2020

Australia says it will ask the WTO to investigate punitive Chinese tariffs on barley imports



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Australia calls Great Barrier Reef warning politically motivated

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Australia has labelled a draft decision by the UN’s World Heritage Committee to include the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list as politically motivated.

The committee, which is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education, and selects Unesco World Heritage sites, proposed adding the world’s largest collection of coral reefs to the danger list because of the damaging impact of climate change and coastal development.

The designation could ultimately lead to the reef losing its World Heritage status, although officials said listing was intended to prompt emergency action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast.

But Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, said the government had been “blindsided” by the committee’s finding and alleged there was a lack of consultation and transparency. She added that Canberra would challenge the draft decision.

“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended, what else can you conclude but that it is politics?” she said.

That the World Heritage Committee is chaired by a senior Chinese official has stoked suspicions in Canberra that it had been singled out over its diplomatic and trade clash with Beijing.

China-Australia relations have soured following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine and barley imports.

Ley said she and Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, had already spoken with Audrey Azoulay, Unesco director-general, to complain about the draft decision.

But scientists downplayed the suggestion that the “in danger” listing was politically motivated. Three mass bleaching events in five years demonstrated the need for the government to do more to tackle climate change, they said.

“I’m seeing some press coverage saying this is all a plot by China not to buy wine, lobsters and to screw the Barrier Reef. I think that’s pretty far-fetched given that the draft decision released overnight will be voted on by 21 countries,” said Terry Hughes, professor of marine biology at James Cook University.

The controversy will heap further international pressure on Canberra, which has been pressed by the US, UK and others to commit to a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In a draft decision due to be voted on next month, the committee urged Canberra to “provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster”.

It noted the loss of almost one-third of shallow-water coral cover following a “bleaching” event in 2016 — a process linked to warmer than normal water that can lead to a mass die-off of coral.

The row over the “in danger” listing occurred at a difficult time for Australia’s conservative coalition, which is embroiled in internal squabbling over climate policies.

On Monday, Barnaby Joyce, a climate sceptic and supporter of coal mining, ousted Michael McCormack to become leader of the National party, the junior coalition partner to the Liberal party, and Australia’s deputy prime minister. Joyce is expected to oppose any move to commit to net zero by 2050.

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The slippery slope of politicised street names

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It is confusing for taxis and Amazon delivery drivers, but in England I live in a Kent village on a street called simply “The Street”. Google Maps disconcertingly emphasises the “The” in big letters.

Surely no street name can be less political than mine. But in a much bigger conurbation, the decision by the mayor of Budapest to impose new street names in the Hungarian capital to highlight China’s human rights abuses is the latest example of the tendentious politicisation of place names around the world. 

There is no doubt about Gergely Karacsony’s purpose. By calling the streets around the site of a proposed Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University “Dalai Lama Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road” and “Uyghur Martyrs Road”, the mayor wants to embarrass Viktor Orban, the authoritarian and pro-China prime minister of Hungary.

He seems to be succeeding. In the face of public protests, Orban is now hesitating to impose the Chinese university project he previously championed to please Communist party leaders in Beijing. You can see why Karacsony did it. He is an opposition politician, and Orban has steadily undermined Hungarian democracy, limiting the scope for other forms of political action. 

But renaming streets for short-term political ends can be the start of a slippery slope. It does nothing to satisfy residents or help visitors find the place they are looking for, which are surely the main reasons for having names at all. And future mayors might change them all back again or impose their own ephemeral political views on the city nomenclature. 

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, has undergone such a bewildering series of street name conversions since the end of French colonial rule — a reflection of sometimes violent regime changes — that avenues are often known to locals by several different names and visitors struggle to navigate the city.

When I lived in the Zambian capital Lusaka in the 1980s, one avenue was briefly renamed Saddam Hussein Boulevard after the Iraqi dictator gave a shipment of oil to the cash-strapped government of Kenneth Kaunda. Now that Saddam is dead and no longer so popular it has again been renamed, this time as Los Angeles Boulevard. But because there was already a Los Angeles Road, that too was renamed last year after national footballing hero Kalusha Bwalya.

Many political or nationalist renamings, it is true, can stand the test of time. There are countless streets and squares in France named after General Charles de Gaulle, and scarcely a substantial town in India without its MG Road in memory of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Some names, however, inevitably lose their appeal. In Madrid I bought my car from a Renault dealer in a street I was amazed to discover was still called the Calle del General Yagüe, a Francoist commander in the civil war known as the Butcher of Badajoz. The name was changed in 2017 to Calle de San Germán. 

A court has just ruled that another Madrid street, called the Calle de los Caídos de la División Azul, can retain its name because the fallen Spanish soldiers who fought for the Nazis on the eastern front might be considered victims of the war as well as perpetrators. 

But the lesson must be that there is little to be gained for mayors, governments or inhabitants if street names are changed purely for short-term political advantage, whether for celebration or denigration.

In our small village in Kent, there was not much scope for change, but change came anyway. There were always three principal roads: The Street, where the church is; Back Street, which runs parallel to it behind the village; and the main road, which joins them at the top and leads to the local towns in either direction. My first experience of the political or social motivations behind street-naming was when Back Street became Swan Lane (after a pub) and the main road was fancifully relabelled Poplar Road. 

Such cosmetic changes are innocent enough — who wants to live with an address on Back Street or the B2082? — and they have become part of the local geography. But somehow I doubt that Budapest’s Free Hong Kong Road will be called that a few years from now. 

victor.mallet@ft.com



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Western powers reignite Beijing anger after G7 and Nato warnings

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For more than six weeks, Taiwanese military officers wondered where the Chinese fighter jets had gone.

During May, only four entered the island’s air defence identification zone. In the first half of this month, there were incursions on only four days and a stretch of nine days without any activity at all. This compared to a previous pattern of as many as 20 incursions a month.

But on June 15, a day after US president Joe Biden and other Nato leaders issued a statement condemning China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour”, 20 PLA fighter jets, four nuclear-capable bombers and four additional military aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ. It was the largest number of planes ever dispatched by the People’s Liberation Army into the zone, with some of them also skirting around the southern tip and east coast of the island before turning back

One senior Taiwanese government official said Beijing could not restrain itself after the Nato communique — and a G7 summit statement issued just days earlier — criticised Beijing’s activities in the Taiwan Strait and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“Beijing wanted to prove wrong those in the west whom they accuse of hyping a China threat theory,” the official said, referring to the reduced military activity in May and early June. “But of course they could not keep it up. Once Taiwan gets a little support, they have to react.”

Chinese analysts said Beijing had no choice but to show its resolve after the Biden administration accelerated its efforts to build a “united front” against China at the G7 and Nato summits — something President Xi Jinping’s administration had long feared but that never materialised when Donald Trump was US president.

“The G7 and Nato have been distorted into anti-China platforms,” said Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat now at the Center for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-backed think-tank. “There are increasingly large forces in China that believe if the US wants to single out China as its fundamental enemy, then let the US have an enemy.”

Beijing also responded to the G7’s criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory, where it recently snuffed out the only public commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on Chinese soil. In the early hours of Thursday, police arrested senior staff at the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper for alleged “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.

A senior officer with the Hong Kong police force’s national security division later said the arrests were related in part to more than 30 articles published in the newspaper.

Beijing’s actions around Taiwan and in Hong Kong were matched by scathing rhetoric. Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson and one of China’s most outspoken diplomats, said the G7 communique “exposed the bad intentions of the US and a few other countries to create antagonism and widen differences with China”.

“The US is sick,” Zhao added. “The G7 should take its pulse and prescribe medicine for it.”

Such comments appeared to contradict recent instructions from Xi, who said last month that official propaganda should “set the right tone, be open and confident but also modest, humble and strive to create a credible, loveable and respectable image of China”.

Xi, however, also noted that China was involved in a “public opinion struggle” internationally. “Powerful anti-China forces in western society want to attack and discredit China,” Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador in Paris, said last week in a state media interview. “We must fight back to safeguard our own interests. Our sovereign security and development interests are inviolable.”

Yun Sun, a China foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, said such rhetoric reflected growing alarm in Xi’s administration. “There is a real concern in Beijing that a united front is forming [and] includes many elements that China does not wish to see such as Taiwan, maritime security and human rights,” Sun said. “That’s why we are seeing some unusually harsh responses from Beijing on G7 and Nato.”

Hong Kong police blow out candles lit by activists to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Beijing responded to G7 criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory © AP

“Germany, France and other EU countries are hesitant to confront China as [openly as] the US,” added Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who advises the State Council on foreign policy issues. “But they are now closer to the US when it comes to dealing with China.”

Some Chinese officials and analysts argue that while Beijing will continue to respond forcefully when criticised over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other “core interests”, this does not preclude co-operation with the US on other issues such as climate change or global tax reform.

Fu Ying, a former Chinese ambassador to the UK, said at a recent seminar that the Biden administration wanted to “prevent China from moving forward to replace the US”. But, she added, “we hope [technological and economic] competition can be managed to ensure it is on a positive track, pushing each other to seek joint development and improvement”.

Beijing “should stand firm on matters of principle but not be too distracted by anti-China hostility”, Gao said. “In the long term China will have a larger economy than the US — no one can change that. Time is on China’s side.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing



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