As the Turnbull government has lurched from crisis to crisis in the past week, seemingly unable to win even the smallest trick, modern China moved into its third era as its leader Xi Jinping took complete charge of the country, a triumphant dictator, after the ruling Communist Party’s quinquennial Congress — with barely a sound from Canberra.
It’s worth remembering that China is Australia’s biggest trade partner, biggest buyer of our exports and biggest supplier of students to our international education industry. In short, China matters.
In something of a fait accompli, that Xi took compete charge in a way that no China leader has done since Mao Zedong, importantly he has also rearranged the and appointment of a new team to the top jobs in the People’s Liberation Army which reports to the party, not the Chinese government. And while there is debate among China-watchers about whether such an overt display of power from Xi is a sign of strength or of weakness, that is a discussion for another day.
To underscore his omniscience, two days later Xi installed his former secretary Li Qiang as party secretary in Shanghai, a key post both Xi and former leader Jiang Zemin held prior to their moves into the party elite.
It is unclear what, if any the short to medium term economic implications of Xi’s ascendency will be: the laundry list of economic reforms that has observers hoping he would emerge as a reformer in the mold of Deng Xiaoping and his own father Xi Zhongxun, who under Deng began the remarkable experiment that has become Shenzhen, now China’s information technology pioneer and third biggest city.
But the human rights implications of the Xi era are all too clear: things will only get tougher for dissidents, activists of all stripes, followers of non-Asian religions (especially Islam and Christianity) as well as Buddhists in Tibet.
So it’s hardly a surprise that in the days leading up to the Party Congress, Australia finally admitted defeat of its formerly annual human rights dialogue with China. Formalised under the Howard government in 1997 and held annually, alternately in Australia and China until 2014, it always appeared very much to be a fig leaf to give Canberra cover to relentlessly pursue trade ties and bugger the human costs, as the rights of both Chinese people and Australians in China were trampled over.
It’s telling, too, that the last time the dialogue was held was February 2014, only a few months after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had pre-emptively carpeted the Chinese ambassador in Canberra over China’s announcement of an aircraft identification zone over the East China Sea. Bishop was, even more embarrassingly, publicly put down over the incident by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on her next visit to Beijing.
But it’s hard to see her, or the government, really caring given that, in the same week, they made the extraordinary decision to upgrade ties with Hun Sen’s authoritarian government in Cambodia. It was something of a WTF moment. He is currently in the process of legally dismantling the Cambodian National Rescue Party, which came within a whisker of officially defeating him in the 2003 general election.
In recent years, Cambodia has become, along with neighbouring communist Laos, China’s patsy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by dint of its pouring billions into the country. Alongside this, Australia has been mute on the appalling situation in Myanmar, where over 600,000 Muslim Rohingyas have been driven out b the military and hardline Buddhist militia groups, an action also backed by Beijing.
As the political landscape changes across much of Asia and Australia’s strategic calculus continues, the Department of Foreign Affairs is working to finalise a document that many former diplomats have made it clear there is little need for: a white paper on foreign affairs.
Still, the mail out of Canberra is that the power in Australia’s policy shifted some time back from DFAT to the Department of the Prime Minister, and the Department of Defence, and that the White Paper may well be a piece of rope long enough for the ambitious Bishop to hang herself. Whatever the case, all of this makes it clear that the Turnbull government has comprehensively lost its way in foreign affairs.