Zhao Lijian
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (Image: AP)

Today, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese will try to further distance himself from the Morrison government’s hawkish approach to China. In a speech delivered at Minerals Week, Albanese will accuse the Morrison government of politicising the China relationship, and having no strategy to deal with the country’s assertiveness without amping up domestic militarism.

“Morrison is making the grave error of prioritising his domestic political interests over Australia’s national interests,” Albanese will say.

Understanding the ever-tense nature of Sino-Australian politics can be disorienting sometimes. Getting across the growing division between Labor and the government over China requires a heap of background knowledge. Too often, that knowledge is a sea of jargon, acronyms and oblique references to news events quickly forgotten.

To cut through the confusion, Crikey’s got you covered with a comprehensive rundown of the key groups, concepts and events central to understanding what’s going on between Canberra and Beijing.

Organisations

Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China

Formed mid-2020, IPAC is a bipartisan group of Western politicians who are united by concerns about China — in particular its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, pressure on Hong Kong, and foreign influence activities. Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching and Liberal MP Andrew Hastie are both founding co-chairs.

Wolverines

Our domestic IPAC — a once-secret group of MPs united by their push for a more hawkish foreign policy stance on China. Their ranks include Hastie and Kitching, along with Liberal Senator James Paterson and Labor’s Anthony Byrne. Their name is a reference to the Reagan-era anti-communist Hollywood blockbuster Red Dawn, and they stand out because of the wolverine claw stickers on the doors of their parliamentary offices.

Five Eyes

An informal international intelligence-sharing network involving Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK and Canada that’s been around since 1941. In recent years, the network has turned its attention to China, and all countries have an increasingly tense geopolitical and security relationship with Beijing. But this year, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta pushed for the country to pursue its own independent relationship with China.

The Quad

Officially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is an informal group involving Australia, the United States, India and Japan. First started in 2007 and reestablished four years ago, the Quad has been reanimated by concerns among its members about China’s geopolitical ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute

A domestic think tank that’s taken a vocal, hawkish position on China’s activities. It’s done important work on foreign interference in Australia and repression of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. But critics also point to its funding by the US State Department and weapons manufacturers.

United Front Work Department

An intelligence organ that uses community organisations and individuals in the diaspora to conduct influence and espionage activities for China.

Concepts

Wolf-warrior diplomacy

Remember when Foreign Ministry hack Zhao Lijian tweeted an image showing a Digger cutting an Afghan child’s throat, sending Australia’s political class into a tailspin? That was a textbook example of wolf-warrior diplomacy (the name comes from a series of Chinese action blockbusters) — a concerted effort by Xi Jinping’s diplomats in recent years to go after countries like the US and Australia with aggressive, confrontational posturing, often in the form of mean tweets.

Belt and Road Initiative

Xi’s geostrategic plan to spend trillions connecting China to the world through a network of road, rail and sea infrastructure projects. It’s also considered a potential arm of Chinese influence, and has been criticised for foisting unsustainable levels of debt onto developing countries.

More recently, the Morrison government used new laws to cancel Victoria’s memorandum of understanding with China under the initiative.

Flashpoints

14 disputes

In November, the Chinese embassy handed Nine journalists a list of 14 disputes it had with the Australian government. “If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy,” officials said. Grievances included the Turnbull government’s decision to ban Huawei from Australia’s 5G network, calls for an independent investigation into COVID-19, and funding for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Huawei ban

In the midst of a week of Liberal leadership spills, the (then) Turnbull government blocked Chinese telco companies Huawei and ZTE from involvement in Australia’s 5G network.

Sam Dastyari

The series of scandals in 2016 and 2017 that brought down ambitious Labor powerbroker Sam Dastyari led to heightened concern about Chinese influence in politics. Dastyari got Huang Xiangmo, a billionaire property tycoon (more on him later) to pay his travel bills. Later, he appeared with Huang at a press conference and contradicted Labor’s stance on the South China Sea, and later warned him his phone was being bugged by security services.

COVID-19 inquiry

A year ago, the Morrison government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. The move was criticised for going too early without the backing of other allies. It also set relations into a death spiral — in the aftermath, China put in place a series of trade sanctions on Australian beef, barley and wine.

Laws

Foreign Arrangements Scheme

New laws passed last year that gave the Commonwealth powers to cancel deals made by states and territories inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy. As expected, the scheme was used to cancel Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative deal. Confucius Institutes at Australian universities could be the next casualty.

Foreign Investment Review Board

A division of Treasury (now helmed by a former ASIO boss) which advises on overseas investment in Australia. Last year the government tightened rules so any foreign investment would be scrutinised. Since then it has blocked a bid for a state-owned construction company to buy here, and has led to a decline in investor interest from China.

Espionage and Foreign Interference Act

Part of a suite of tough new national security laws introduced in 2018 to crack down on Chinese foreign interference. In particular, the act broadens the scope of espionage offences and national security. It could also leave journalists facing jail time.

Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme

Also introduced in 2018, the scheme forces anyone lobbying on behalf of a foreign principal to register. Intended to target Chinese activities, it’s been considered under-utilised, although it has tangled up Tony Abbott.

Players

Chau Chak Wing

Billionaire property developer and philanthropist with close ties to Xi Jinping. Recently won a lawsuit against The Age and the ABC over a Four Corners episode that alleged he was buying Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in Australia.

Huang Xiangmo

Another billionaire property developer with ties to the CCP who gave nearly $3 million to Australian political parties. Connections to Huang eventually ended Dastyari’s political career. In 2019, security agencies cancelled his permanent residency, leaving him stranded in Hong Kong unable to return to Australia.

Cheng Jingye

China’s ambassador to Australia for the past five years. Cheng began his tenure positive about the bilateral relationship. Within a year he was hitting out at the media for stoking “panic” over its foreign influence reporting, and his remarks have followed the trajectory of the deteriorating relationship. Most recently, he told a business forum the Morrison government was at fault for worsening relations, and lamented attacks on China from prominent Australian politicians.

Zhao Lijian

Zhao is deputy director of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs’ information department. But he’s most prominent as one of the chief “wolf warriors”. A prodigious tweeter, he sparked a meltdown in Canberra with his provocative shitpost after the Brereton report last year. And he has form going after the West, so much form Buzzfeed called him the “combative, bombastic, frankly Trumpy voice” of China on Twitter.

Clive Hamilton

An academic and one-time Greens candidate, Hamilton has become one of the most hawkish voices on China. His 2018 book Silent Invasion, which argued Australia’s sovereignty was under threat from CCP influence operations, was dropped by its initial publisher over fears of retaliation from China.

John Garnaut

A former China correspondent for Fairfax, who admitted his perception of the country’s rise shifted dramatically during his time reporting there. After journalism, he worked on foreign interference issues for Malcolm Turnbull, putting together a classified dossier on CCP influence. He’s credited as shifting the former prime minister’s views on China.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

Liz
North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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