The Abbott government continues to be in a quandary about how to deal with China.

Last week, it spurned China’s blandishments to join its Asian Infrastructure Fund after a cabinet brawl between those in favor — namely Treasurer Joe Hockey, who hasn’t set foot in China once since 2002, and Trade Minister Andrew Robb — and those opposed, specifically Foreign Minister and deputy leader Julie Bishop. For reasons of transparency alone, it was the right move.

Robb, naturally enough, is desperate to ink a free trade agreement with China to cap off a trifecta of north Asian FTAs that started with South Korea, followed by Japan. But he is struggling after China surprised him with its first tariffs on coal in nine years and new environmental rules on coal imports that will leave Australia’s thermal coal miners less competitive than many of their competitors.

Yet only a week prior to this, the government was falling over itself to help China track down countless millions of dollars — in a campaign known as Operation Fox Hunt — that have been funneled offshore into Australia by corrupt Chinese Communist Party cadres.

There are already some results from this global initiative, with state news agency Xinhua announcing at the weekend that Fox Hunt had caught as many as 180 officials in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Laos. Australia — along with the US and Canada one of the prime destinations for fugitive officials — has never had extradition treaties with China due, inter alia, to concerns that suspects who are returned would be subjected to state-sanctioned torture in a legal system that effectively has a presumption of guilt.

Why now is Australia suddenly prepared to extradite alleged criminals to China on the say-so of a ruling government that, we have previously assumed, sanctions human rights violations? How does the government know the people it is being asked to extradite are not simply victims of a political purge?

Perhaps even more importantly: why, instead of bending over, does Australia not use the request for help tactically, to agitate for the release of any of the Australians jailed in China for no reason other than they have fallen foul of party cadres?

“Tony Abbott is only too happy to play the tough man with Russian President Vladimir Putin … but threaten to shirt-front Xi Jinping? Not on your nelly.”

Australians Matthew Ng, a travel industry entrepreneur, Charlotte Chou, who began a successful technology college, and cardiologist and medical scientist Du Zuying languish in Chinese jails because their business partners got greedy and used party connections to have them jailed. Disgraced Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu has also already served the four years to which he was sentenced and is now serving the six years he received for “industrial espionage” — a sentence even Rio Tinto, when it washed its hands of him and the other three men who made Australian-based iron ore executives rich, did not agree with.

Yet little if anything has been done by the Australian government to help free any of these people —  beyond timidly “raising their cases” occasionally in Beijing — or any of the other three dozen or so Australians in jail or custody awaiting trial in China that DFAT considers are there purely for political reasons.

The Chinese understand leverage and dealmaking. If they want help with Operation Fox Hunt, at the very least the government should be insisting on early release for those three people. Other countries are deft at using such behind-the-scenes arm twisting — and China’s ruthless negotiating tactics, underscored publicly by its coal tariffs, show it does too — but sadly Abbott, like his predecessors, pussyfoots around the issue.

The government should also demand that the Chinese government stop the harassment and visa-blocking of Australian journalists and media organisations — the ABC is not the only major Australian media group that has been ear-bashed  and threatened by China’s embassy in Canberra over media coverage. An outrage in a country that has a free press, at least for now.

Co-operating with China on Operation Fox Hunt looks like a wasted opportunity to play some real hard-nosed diplomacy, rather than hitting a self-imposed FTA timetable.

Tony Abbott is only too happy to play the tough man with Russian President Vladimir Putin — no coincidence that Australia’s trade with Russia is less than $2 billion a year, a drop in the ocean compared with Australia’s $142 billion a year trade with China. Yet Abbott is also happy to spit directly in China’s face with his embrace of its enemy Japan — the logic is difficult to follow. But threaten to shirt-front Xi Jinping? Not on your nelly.

Instead, the Chinese leader is getting the public relations coup of addressing Australia’s parliament later this month. This as Xi continues his ruthless program of crushing dissent, locking up prominent agitators for democracy, tossing out others like Australian-Chinese artist Guo Jian, sanctioning state-sponsored torture and laying waste to ancient cultures in places like Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as arming China’s submarines with nuclear warheads for the first time. There is little chance Abbott would grant the same honor to Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, whose track record on such issues is far better than Xi’s.

Confused? Me too.