With a federal election only 12 months away, the powers that be in Beijing decided they’d like to have a good look at senior members of Australia’s prospective next government.
After a four-month delay to accommodate the Chinese leadership handover, this week the fearless deputy leader of the Liberal Party Julie Bishop is leading a relatively heavy hitting group of Libs and Nats on a three-city tour of the country that continues to underpin Australia’s economic prosperity. The stuffy rituals of the Chinese Communist Party and endless — and early — banquet dinners with provincial officials will doubtless be a welcome distraction for the Member for Curtin, who has been under the gun over the past week for her sloppy role in the ongoing AWU saga.
The Communist Party itself, or more particularly its international department, will play host to Bishop, Nationals leader Warren Truss, his deputy Nigel Scullion, legal spokesman George Brandis and Defence spokesman David Johnston. The trip was cooked up by Bishop and the party’s emissary to Canberra Chen Yuming — the latest in a long line of savvy ambassadors that count amongst their number Madam Fu Ying, Foreign Affairs Vice-Minister.
The cashed-up party (though its funding mechanism remains one of the world’s great mysteries) has shouted the entire delegation its airfares and accommodation. After Beijing they will travel to Jinin, capital of prosperous Shangdong province, home to Tsingtao beer, Haier whitegoods and former Labor Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbons’ Mata Hari Helen Liu. Then it’s onto Shanghai which seems set for a renaissance with two former party chiefs of the metropolison, the party’s new Politburo Standing Committee.
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Bishop and her team are pencilled in to meet Dai Bingguo, the State Councillor in charge of foreign affairs who ranks ahead of Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. Gossip around the Hong Kong press is that Yang may replace Dai, but like everything in Beijing it remains unclear until it isn’t.
Even though some may not think so, the CCP is actually doing Australian voters a favour. If the Coalition does return to the Treasury benches next year it will be in the interests of all Australians that we have China savvy leaders. In fact, it might have been nice if some other senior Libs and Nats had joined the tour, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb for instance, neither of whom has been here for at least five years. Or Barnaby Joyce who, like The Australian‘s Greg Sheridan, likes to bleat about China from his armchair. Bishop aside, the only regular visitor to these parts from the opposition has been one Malcolm Turnbull — but he is another story.
To give Bishop her due, she has put plenty of work into the China relationship: this is her fourth trip to China this year and eighth as foreign affairs spokesperson. It’s a record the government, with its fitful attention towards China, should envy.
Under five years of Labor, prime ministerial and substantial foreign minister visits to China have been thin on the ground: just two by Kevin Rudd as PM (and one was for the Olympics; barely counts) and one by Julia Gillard; two by Stephen Smith as FM (one was in-and-out) and three by Rudd as FM (one “unofficial”, the others incredibly brief.) The unstoppable Bob Carr has been once, a decent visit, and is by all accounts gagging to get back.
“This odd complacency toward China has given the opposition the rare opportunity of a win in the generally bipartisan world of foreign affairs and diplomacy …”
Gillard was awkward on her whistle-stop and lone visit as PM last year, egregiously only stopping in Beijing in what was only her second-ever trip to the country and first for over a decade. Diplomats and business folk alike were aghast and a particularly awful speech (whose authors should have been sacked) topped off a visit that can be damned with the faint praise of “ticking the boxes”.
This odd complacency toward China has given the opposition the rare opportunity of a win in the generally bipartisan world of foreign affairs and diplomacy, allowing Bishop and her team to develop a story that Labor has mismanaged the relationship.
But while it might seem an easy leap to take the lead on a big topic like China from a government that doesn’t quite get it, there are plenty of pitfalls — especially for an opposition that has tended to instinctively lurch to the right. After all, there are really only two things of real interest to the Chinese when it comes Australia: our investment environment and our defence policy. All the rest is window dressing.
It’s the first which should be a lay down misère for the party of free enterprise. But it’s that which is likely to pose Bishop, and more particularly Truss and Scullion, with some stare-into-your-shark’s-fin-soup moments with their Chinese interlocutors.
Frontbench colleague Joyce has been leading the anti-Chinese investment charge, but Bishop’s boss Tony Abbott really spooked the horses on his first visit in six years in July when he questioned Chinese state-owned companies buying Australian assets. “It would rarely be in Australia’s national interest to allow a foreign government or its agencies to control an Australian business,” he said.
So while Bishop and co will have a fair bit of mopping up to do this week, the heavy lifting was done by Abbott’s mentor John Howard when he delivered an excellent speech to kick off the Caijing magazine annual conference in Beijing last week. Howard was emphatic that Australia truly does welcome Chinese investment while also saying we shouldn’t lecture China about its political system, making it all sound like a no-brainer.
He also provided a good template for Johnston when he said people shouldn’t be “seduced in thinking they have to make a choice between China and the US”.
But the Chinese will still ask about those pesky US Marines near Darwin. And they won’t like the answer.
*Michael Sainsbury is Beijing correspondent for the Daily Mail and was previously The Australian‘s correspondent in China