Beware the yellow peril. That is unfortunately still the message that Australia seems to be screaming to our Asian neighbours after the sometimes ugly and unnecessary stoush over the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).

The fault lies both with the former Abbott government and its utter incapacity to compromise, and with the troglodytes that still dwell in the unlit swamps that are parts of the union movement.

Labor had some fair points to make about a handful of unclear labour provisions in the deal, which were easily dealt with by three tweaks to Australian immigration and labour laws.

As Opposition Leader Bill Shorten put it: “Let’s have some legally enforceable grunt behind protecting Australian jobs. This is a ratcheting up of the level of legal protection for Australian jobs.”

And Trade Minister Andrew Robb and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton agreed to the compromise. What a difference six weeks make.

“Our discussions with Labor were both constructive and held in good faith, and Shadow Minister for Trade and Investment Penny Wong and her staff deserve credit for the work they have done on behalf of the Opposition,” Robb and Dutton said in a statement.

Wow, was that so hard?

In the meantime, the unions ran a public campaign that showed the ugly, xenophobic side of Australia. These things get noticed in Asia, and not just in the particular country to which they are directed.

Another example is Barnaby Joyce et al’s campaigns against Chinese businesses “buying up the farm” — a cry that resonates well beyond China with other major Asian investors such as Singapore (where the majority are ethnically Chinese) as well as Thailand and Malaysia, where a significant percentage of wealthy business elites are ethnically Chinese.

Now there is more meaningful parliamentary opposition to ChAFTA, and the Australian government will be ready to exchange letters by the end of the year.

Labor only started its campaign against the FTA after it was signed, despite there being widespread understanding before that about what it would contain. The campaign was largely political. No government in its right mind would start allowing any major influx of cheap labour into Australia from offshore — heck, the Abbott government didn’t much want anyone from offshore coming into Australia, just ask the unfortunate wretches on Nauru and Manus Island.

But the Australian Labor Party must be overawed by the frightening (from their point of view) popularity of Malcolm Turnbull. One has to think that Turnbull’s bullseye in dismissing the ALP’s negative campaign against his wealth, which both effortlessly rebuffed the smear attack and masterfully flipped it back upon its hapless progenitors, has left Labor strategists scurrying to clear the decks and review the the rest of their attacks on the Coalition. The scaremongering ChAFTA campaign was certainly one of these, no matter how one might view its merits.

Turnbull’s assured, measured stance as a voice of reason has struck such a chord with voters who have so enthusiastically welcomed the change of tone from Canberra that only an opponent with complete sensory deprivation would persevere with any such attacks, never mind opposing a deal that only has economic upsides.

Still, the troubles, such as they were, with the FTA are likely to recede in the rearview mirror with such alarming alacrity that cabinet will be aching for such relatively trivial matters to be at the centre of its deliberations of Australia’s relationship with China. As Crikey has noted on more than one occasion, doing business in China — and keeping it going successfully without having your intellectual prosperity, or indeed entire business, whipped away lock stock and smoking barrel, is a dark art.

But even that is a cake-walk compared with the looming strategic questions now facing Australia’s first female Defence Minister, Marise Payne, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and their China-savvy boss Malcolm Turnbull squarely in the face.

Completing the unique triumvirate of foreign affairs is Frances Adamson, Australian ambassador to China since August 2011, who has pulled of a couple of reasonably rare doubles after her previous role as chief of staff for former Labor MP Stephen Smith when he was foreign affairs minister.

She’s no stranger to Western diplomacy either, having been No. 2 in London and doing a lot of the heavy lifting when former cabinet minister Richard Alston was the high commissioner.

“Excellent appointment, Malcolm is a smart guy,” Adamson’s predecessor in Beijing, Geoff Raby, told Crikey.

Adamson, a bright, incredibly measured, personable diplomat works very hard at everything, including her admirable Chinese language skills. Her ever-so-slightly school marmishness almost masks a fierce ambition; the top job at DFAT is squarely in her sights, and with this new gig, she appears to have set herself nicely.

She has played it ultra-safe and dead straight in Beijing but four and half years has armed her with unmatchable on-the-ground insights that will complement Turnbull’s own commercial knowledge of China and intellectual heft to an absolute T. And, boy oh boy, are they going to need all that.

This week, Team Turnbull got a taste of things to come from Beijing after the annual bilateral talks with the US on foreign affairs and defence — known as AUSMIN — held this year in Boston, produced an unexpectedly aggressive stance on China’s bellicose, provocative island-building in the South China Sea.

Australia and the US expressed “strong concern” about China’s actions, and there are suggestions that the two countries will test the waters, as it were by, sailing navy ships within the 12-mile “territorial” limit. There are three Australian ships in the South China Sea at present.

Views range on whether this is overdue or the wrong move and/or too late. Take your pick, but for the record, this diarist reckons it’s time to take it up to China.

So far, Beijing has played a clever game. And its response to Australia and the US was a warning that this is just the beginning.

“We hope that Australia will stay committed to not taking sides on issues concerning disputes over sovereignty,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday.

The upcoming defence white paper just got a whole lot more interesting.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey