Has Australia Found the Right Answer to Chinese Aggression?
The Albanese government has a responsibility to try and assist Washington in re-establishing the guardrails in its relationship with China.
What followed was not only a rolling firestorm in the Australian media about the extent and reach of Chinese influence into Australian political life, but the first piece of legislation around the world specifically designed to counter Chinese infiltration into national political institutions and political parties. From this moment, the Australian government projected itself both to the United States, as well as Britain and Europe, as something of an exemplar in meeting the China challenge. In the words of a former advisor to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, John Garnaut, Australia was the “canary in the coalmine.” Turnbull himself appeared to relish his government being on the front foot. When he introduced the legislation into the parliament, he drew on the alleged comments Mao made at the moment of Communist Party triumph in China’s Civil War; Australia, too, had now “stood up.”
Australia’s sense of grievance also became increasingly overt over China’s attempted interference in universities and the Chinese community in Australia of 1.2 million people. Concern at Chinese investment in critical infrastructure became acute. Even if ministerial and prime ministerial statements contained the occasional hedging statements—the remnants of Australia’s China policy from previous decades—the ultimate direction of the Australian debate was steadily rolling towards the casting of China as an enemy.
There was much more going on here, however, than the adoption of an early, forthright Australian policy stance on China. Australia’s position has a clear U.S. alliance calculation. Canberra was out to prove its mettle as a U.S. alliance partner in an era of strategic competition with Beijing. But it also emerges from an anxiety, not limited to Canberra amongst U.S. Asian allies, that Washington’s resolve to maintain its regional hegemony is slipping. These concerns were particularly acute during the Trump presidency, although the release of his administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which still talked the language of the United States “prevailing” in its strategic competition with China, went some way towards assuaging these concerns. Being the model in pushing back against China, in essence, was as much about getting Washington’s attention as it was showing Beijing that it couldn’t be bullied.
By late 2017 some policymakers in Canberra had clearly shed any doubts about China’s motivations, its influence operations in Australia and its ultimate strategic ambition. During a closed roundtable with French foreign ministry policy planners at a Sydney think tank late that year, two senior government officials, from DFAT and the Office of National Assessments, gave an aggressive, almost lurid presentation that revealed the general trend in the government’s thinking on China. The Foreign Affairs official explained to his French listeners that Australia was then in the process of trying to define the boundaries of its relationship with China. Conscious of Beijing’s economic retaliation towards Seoul over its decision to host a U.S. missile system in South Korea, the official conceded that Australia was expecting “similar attention.” Accordingly, Canberra had to “shape things and lay down markers.” This was especially pressing since the “real Xi” was believed likely to emerge over the next decade. Canberra, then, had to be “purposeful and deliberate … only this way will China be really aware of us.”
Putting things more starkly, the Australian intelligence official asserted that “China is out to cut the same deal with the Australian people that it cuts with its own: the doling out of economic benefits in exchange for political compliance.” Calling China out was held up as “a way of threatening regime change in Beijing.” Here in the starkest language imaginable was the laying out of Australia’s own settling point on China policy from 2017. It would call out China’s behavior in the most pungent, public way possible, exploit China’s sensitivities in terms of outside powers combining to balance its rise, and bring the Australian public along on that narrative journey. Canberra was going to “punch above its weight”—no alternative was considered.
Although no Australian prime minister or foreign minister ever talked of regime change in China, its appearance here showed the extraordinary impulses shaping some of the thinking in Canberra’s security agencies. In the eyes of this official at least, the economic foundation of the relationship could not be allowed to compromise Australian political independence. The framework being sketched here revealed how far ahead some parts of Canberra’s national security community was of Washington in its reaction to the more assertive China. Indeed, it would come to make the United States’ publicly expressed China policy of “strategic competition” look almost benign. What is not clear, however, is just how much thinking was going into how Australia would respond to China’s reaction to this policy.
The Australian need to broadcast to Washington that it was leading the allied pack on pushing back against China subsequently became compulsive. In his last week in office in September 2018, the Turnbull government decided to block the Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE from supplying equipment for the rollout of the 5G wireless network. And one of the first things Turnbull did after the National Security Committee of Cabinet had made its decision was to call President Trump and advise him of the move. Writing in his memoirs, Turnbull stressed that it was “first formal ban of Huawei and ZTE in the world.” It was not an admission, he noted, that Huawei was then interfering in Australian telecommunication networks, but rather a “hedge against a future threat: not the identification of a smoking gun but a loaded one.” All the more reason, it seemed, for the Australian government to once more go out in front on China. The president, Turnbull recalls, was “both impressed and a little surprised that we’d taken this position.” But Trump should not have been surprised, since the decision had been a coordinated effort hatched by the Five Eyes intelligence chiefs at a meeting in Nova Scotia in July that year.
The prime ministership of Turnbull’s successor, Scott Morrison, unfolded against the backdrop of Xi Jinping’s attempt to make Australia another example of what can happen if a country decides to stand up to Chinese intimidation. Once again, the Australian media tended to portray this economic coercion of Australia in terms of national heroics—Australia being the global standard bearer facing the Chinese bully.
Beijing took particular offence not only to the Morrison government’s call in April 2020 for an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus, but to the added suggestion from the prime minister that international investigators going into China be given the powers of weapons inspectors. In response to these and other Australian decisions involving China, Beijing meted out its punishment across multiple trade sectors, from tourism and education to agriculture and resources, with Chinese authorities advising both university students and tourists to resist travelling to Australia. In May that year China not only slapped an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley exports for a period of five years—affecting 50 percent of Australia’s overall barley trade—it also blacklisted beef imports from four major Australian abattoirs, which on some estimates then comprised approximately 35 percent of total Australian beef exports to mainland China. Over the course of 2020-21, China’s trade punishment continued, with tariffs of up to 212 percent placed on Australian wine, as well as informal restrictions on other goods such as thermal and coking coal, cotton, timber and lobsters. It also indefinitely suspended the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, one of the few remaining avenues for high-level diplomatic exchange. That the economic relationship with Australia was being wielded by Beijing as a tool to communicate political dissatisfaction was explicitly acknowledged by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on 7 July 2021 when its spokesperson told a press conference, “We will not allow any country to reap benefits from doing business with China while groundlessly accusing and smearing China.” Labelling Australia a “cat’s paw” for the United States, the spokesperson stated that “it is the people that pay for misguided government policies.”
The nadir, however, was still to come. At the end of 2020, a Chinese embassy official in Canberra handed to a local journalist a list of fourteen grievances held by Beijing towards the Australian government. The issuing of that document was itself a curious affair: it was not an official aide-memoire, which has a particular diplomatic status, but rather a response to an Australian journalist who sought clarification of China’s concerns. Even so, the document contained a series of demands that Canberra not only change certain policies affecting China but alter fundamental aspects of Australian democracy. It constituted the lowest point in the history of the formal diplomatic relationship since its beginnings in 1972. Morrison was subsequently to take this very list of grievances to the G7 meeting of in Cornwall in July 2021, to which Australia had been invited as an observer. And he not only spoke at length to other leaders about the demands, he distributed copies to them. He was using it as the documentary proof to confirm Australia’s status as world leader in meeting the China challenge.
But here is where Australian claims to being a model have somewhat less credibility. As China has become stronger, economic coercion has become a more prominent part of its statecraft: tried against France, Britain, South Korea, Norway, Taiwan, and others, and, in some of those cases, before Xi’s ascendency. The results have been less than encouraging for China. As political scientist James Reilly has shown in a recent study of Beijing’s international economic strategies, “Chinese leaders have been unable to wrest significant policy concessions from the leaders of wealthy, stable democracies.” The difference this time is the breadth of tariffs imposed across so wide a range of Australian exports. Nevertheless, the action has served those pushing a “China threat” narrative to present Australia as an abused victim in the relationship. The line that “it is not Australia that changed, but China” has also been deployed to service this narrative, and Scott Morrison used it to present himself as a defender of Australian values against an authoritarian regime.