As Malcolm Turnbull jetted off to China for the G20 meeting this weekend after the debacle of Labor taking over the House of Representatives, he would have had much to think about in terms of our relations with China. Apart from the South China Sea, there had been knocking back investments such as Ausgrid and the Kidman property. Until the Sam Dastyari incident blew up, paying politicians bills had been business as usual for the Chinese. Now they’ve found “disease-causing bacteria” including E. coli and stahpyloccocuss in milk shipments and have put the whole industry on notice.
The Camperdown Dairy Company say whatever the problem is, it’s not the presence of “disease-causing bacteria”. Such incidents tend to have a different meaning when dealing with the Chinese.
- Australian dairy exports to China are up 46 per cent over the last five years with fresh milk being the fastest growing category, according to Dairy Australia.
Mark Tanner, the managing director of marketing consultancy China Skinny, said fast growing imported categories are often targeted by authorities in China.
“We often see this type of propaganda being used against countries which are doing well in a particularly category,” he said via phone from Shanghai.
The Chinese are concerned about their local suppliers, and that may be the extent of it. Maybe, maybe not.
Recently the Chinese found fungus in imported Kiwi fruit. Turns out Chinese officials had hinted there may be some problems if Wellington pursued anti-dumping proceedings against Chinese steel producers.
Would such problems occur if China owned the dairy company in Australia?
Paying Sam Dastyari was absolutely business as usual for the Chinese. In fact one Chinese donor, property developer Huang Xiangmo had paid out over $1 million to Australian politicians since 2012, and he’d given $1.8 million to set up Bob Carr’s pro-China outfit, the Australia China Relations Institute.
Peter Hartcher tells us that Chinese expect a return for their gifts, and Huang has been complaining that he’s not getting a good return.
- Total disclosed payments to the major parties by Chinese corporate and business interests in the two years to June 30 last year was $5.89 million.
An informed official tells me: “There is very high level concern inside ASIO about the use of donations to purchase access and influence.
“It’s concern about systematic behaviour by people connected to the Chinese state apparatus. It’s centrally directed by Chinese intelligence.”
I heard Turnbull saying on the box that if we cut off the Chinese, then we could end up with the whole show being even more unbalanced, with Getup and the unions funding Labor. Hartcher thinks a line needs to be drawn:
- Labor is calling for a ban on foreign political donations. The Turnbull government needs to join it and change the law.
But the main parties have to go further. Rather than being the jurisdiction most open to corruption, the federal parliament and government should be the one with greatest integrity.
The Turnbull government and the Shorten opposition are afraid of what a federal anti-corruption agency might find if they set one up. They should be more worried about what is about to happen to our country if they do not.
Meanwhile Turnbull seems to have confused our security agencies as to his attitude to China, according to Aaron Patrick in the AFR. The intelligence establishment appears staunchly anti-Chinese and pro-American. Turnbull seems more sympathetic to China and appears to be taking independent advice. The agencies can’t work him out.
A government contractor with close links to the intelligence services said:
- “He is probably the first time since [Gough] Whitlam where we have had a prime minister where we don’t know where he stands on national security grounds.”
Angus Grigg, who is based in Shanghai, has a thoughtful article on Turnbull’s views on China.
He goes back to 2012 to when Turnbull wrote a review of Hugh White’s book, The China Challenge:
“There is a lot of merit in Australia being seen to have a mind of its own, while remaining a staunch ally of America,” Turnbull wrote.
“Whether in Beijing or Washington, great powers see deference as their due.”
Turnbull favoured developing an independent foreign policy, not siding with either hegemon. Grigg says that this is known in the business as “independence within the alliance”, a posture favoured by former Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.
Grigg says Turnbull was said to be influenced by:
the views of Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, and most particularly a 2015 article he penned titled “Salvaging Global Order”.
Fontaine thinks the global rules-based order is under threat by newbies like China and Russia, who weren’t there when the house was built. He thinks we need to look at issues as they arise, and have the choice of supporting China, opposing it, or staying silent and neutral.
To me Turnbull’s stance on TV, after meeting with the Chinese leaders, was commendably more nuanced and independent. China, he said, wants fairness over issues like Ausgrid and the Kidman cattle station. They’ll get fairness, Turnbull said, but sometimes the answer will be “no”.
Internally Chinese leaders are not used to opposition and it seems their approach can lack subtlety. In hosting a B20 business forum many stayed away because China expects a rubber stamp for whatever it proposes. Apparently that is what happened.
When Back Obama arrived there was no red carpet and no staircase ramp for him to step out of the plane. Obama had to exit from ‘ass’ of Air Force One and find his own way to the terminal.
They say such things are not accidents, they are meant to have meaning.
Grigg said recent tensions between Australia and China in everything from the highly publicised spat between Australian and Chinese swimmers at the Olympics, to growing concerns over Chinese political donations and soft power and hostility towards investment from Beijing-backed companies have been met with increasingly personal editorials in state-run newspapers like The Global Times:
It famously labelled Australia a “paper cat” for its position on the South China Sea.
“Australia is a unique country with an inglorious history,” it said on July 30.
“It was at first an offshore prison of the UK and then became its colony … this country was established through uncivilised means, in a process filled with the tears of the Aboriginals.”
Probably we are not important enough to merit the treatment Obama got, but we live in interesting times.
By the way, Stephen Conroy’s ravings about taking on the Chinese in the South China Sea is thought to have cost Labor $450,000 in donations before the elections.