Scott Morrison China

Scott Morrison is sensibly trying to continue Malcolm Turnbull’s efforts, made late in his prime ministership, to mend relations with Beijing. Yet — because nothing sells China these days so well as large dollops of fear and loathing — Morrison’s first significant talk on the topic, a speech to the Chinese community in Sydney on October 4, went all but unreported until picked up by John Menadue’s policy-focused website, Pearls and Irritations.

Morrison repeated the themes of Turnbull’s August address at the University of New South Wales (which was pointedly made in the presence of China’s ambassador to Australia). A particularly strong focus was given to Chinese immigrants who live in Australia, and Australians with Chinese heritage:

There are 1.2 million Australians who identify as having Chinese ancestry — that’s larger than any other people of non-Anglo Saxon background. Despite some attitudes shown to Chinese Australians in earlier times — times long passed — Chinese Australians have always maintained a faith in our country, a devotion to family and hard work and a simple love of the Australian way of life. We cherish their contribution in all its facets. It enriches us, and that means we’re better for it.

Morrison’s speech, like Turnbull’s before it, came at a time when relations between Australia and its biggest two-way trade partner and wannabe regional hegemon continue to plumb depths not seen in almost a decade, and possibly longer.

Top-level visits between Australian and Chinese senior leaders have been frozen by Beijing since both Turnbull and Julie Bishop bravely took China to task for its illegal, military and resource-focused encroachment into the South China Sea.

After Turnbull’s speech, both he and Bishop signaled their intention to attempt to travel to Beijing this year. But the Chinese government, via its official and semi-official media mouthpieces, have continued to pour scorn on Australia:

Canberra and Tokyo should not allow the resurgence of the Cold War paranoia that has already taken hold of the US, shape their actions …

[Australian leaders] should realise the full significance of a return of the full-scale mistrust of the Cold War, as it will create a fragile peace that risks being shattered by the slightest misstep. They should be aware that letting the US lead them by the nose as it pursues a confrontational strategy toward China is really not in their best interests.

China Daily editorial, October 13

And here is the rub: for the foreseeable future, Australia will remain between a rock and a hard place with China and an increasingly unpredictable US as its key strategic ally. It’s a position underscored by swelling numbers of US Marines stationed near Darwin’s China-owned port.

Menadue (a former Japan envoy and senior bureaucrat) and a list of other former ambassadors, including some who are long-time Communist Party critics, have welcomed Canberra’s continuing efforts at constructive engagement. And Morrison is, in his own words “relishing” the opportunity to directly engage with Chinese leaders during the annual summit season. But he should be careful what he wishes for.

Like Turnbull, Morrison gave Beijing effective full reassurance that Australia won’t join the US’ trade wars, lauding the influx of Chinese cash and people into the Australian economy. But what remains unclear is whether Beijing is interested in engagement on anything else but its own terms. 

Meanwhile, the trade war with the US is heating up and there is already fallout in commodities prices and stock markets. The Chinese economy appears to be staying lower for longer, as evidenced by recent stimulus measures that have seeped out of Beijing. All this also flows into Australia’s other main trade partners including the US, Japan, South Korea and the big Southeast Asian economies, as well as New Zealand.

“Now Australia and China won’t always agree; we have different systems, national interests and concerns — spawning, naturally enough, alternative views from time to time,” Morrison said in his October 4 address. “But this is what’s crucial: we manage these divergences constructively, guided by the principle of equality and our deep and abiding mutual respect.”

For now at least it seems Beijing is not interested in reconciliation until Australia, as the state-run China Daily said, stops “being led by the nose by the US”.

Resentment is also bubbling away amongst the “don’t sell the farm” NIMBYs — usually led from the front from the agrarian socialists in the National Party — over the impending sale of James Packer’s private company Consolidated Press Holding’s vast agricultural assets worth up to $1 billion, upon which China has its acquisitive eye.

Readers may remember Chinese companies were barred from acquiring Australia’s largest cattle station group S. Kidman by then-treasurer Morrison in 2016. Gina Rinehart eventually bought the company.

Morrison may have good intentions, but until Australia (whether this government or the next) bites the bullet and clearly outlines a medium- to long-term China policy, the bad blood is likely to continue flowing.