scott-morrison-and-daniel-andrews
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

While it went down a treat with the press gallery and right-wing media at the time, Scott Morrison’s hasty and furious response to the trolling of a junior Chinese official last week now seems increasingly ill-judged. Even extreme reactionaries in News Corp have begun questioning whether Morrison has any plan for the escalating dispute with China.

Morrison would have better off leaving the response to Marise Payne, or noting that the Brereton report was something literally impossible for the Chinese government to ever produce given its incapacity to acknowledge wrongdoing or tolerate questioning.

The real response should have taken the form of actions, rather than words. Fortunately, with the imminent passage of the Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill, the government has a useful option on that front.

The impact of the bill on universities is deeply concerning: the government despises universities and refused to assist them in the pandemic, while steadily increasing the amount of control it exercises over them on the basis of national security. The new bill is that latest such extension of control.

But its provisions in relation to state and territory governments are amply justified by the Victorian government’s obnoxious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreement with the Beijing tyranny.

The agreement dates from 2018, when the federal government itself was still in thrall to the Abbott-era idea of truckling to China in order to secure more trade and investment opportunities. There was little complaint about it back then; Andrews was merely doing what a gung-ho Abbott government had encouraged us all to do when it signed us up to a trade deal with China.

More than two years later, of course, we’re supposed to forget everything the government said about the joys of being ever closer to Beijing.

The Andrews deal is bureaucratic waffle about consultation, coordination, cooperation and connectivity. Its primary benefit appears to be to add to the number of memorandums of understanding (MOUs) the Chinese dictatorship can boast of having signed in relation to the BRI, which is little more than straightforward colonialism aimed at securing Chinese control of extractive resources. Neither the Liberals nor federal Labor support Australian involvement in the BRI.

With the MOU already a dead letter, the government has an opportunity to do more than fulminate from the Lodge about nasty tweets. Overruling the agreement will send a signal that Australia’s federal system is not an opportunity for China to leverage Australian governments against one another. It would have been far more effective to let the tweet be addressed at officials’ level and let the cancellation of the Victorian agreement serve as a response.

Critics and the China lobby might say this is unnecessarily provocative, but every olive branch extended by the government has been rebuffed by the Xi regime — indeed, met with escalations of rhetoric and trade sanctions.

Other options exist for pushing back against China. Beijing still blocks any participation, even as an observer, by Taiwan in the corrupted World Health Organization, despite Taiwan’s remarkable success in dealing with COVID-19. Australia should be much louder in support of a role for one of the Asia-Pacific’s most successful democracies in planning for future pandemics.

Then there are the 2022 “Genocide Games” — the winter Olympics to be held in Beijing while China continues its brutal campaign of oppression of Uyghurs, its crushing of dissent in Hong Kong and its long-running suppression of Tibetans. Why Australia would participate in an event deliberately overlooking atrocities on a mass scale is a question that should be asked increasingly loudly.

Peter Fray

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