When Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, Chinese media outlets gave him the nickname Tang Bao, which sounds like his surname and means sweet dumpling, according to Lisa Murray in the AFR. Yet the dumpling has turned sour as relations with China are assessed as worse than they were since the Tienanmen Square incident
On Saturday 9 December last year Turnbull stood in a leafy garden and let fly:
Switching between Mandarin and English, Turnbull then said: “Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words: ‘The Chinese people have stood up’. It was an assertion of sovereignty, it was an assertion of pride.”
“And we stand up and so we say, the Australian people stand up.”
Historians may come to mark that day as a turning point, when Australia’s future was put into play, ending later during Bill Shorten’s period as PM with Australia declaring neutrality in relation to both China and the USA.
On Thursday the 7th Turnbull had introduced foreign interference legislation into the parliament with plenty of talk about China and Sam Dastyari. The aim was to embarrass Labor and force Bill Shorten to sack Dastyari. Now the Government claims that the legislation did not single out any country, but at the time there was rhetoric about “Shanghai Sam” and the “Manchurian Candidate”.
China was not amused and had lodged a “serious complaint” with Australia over the allegations of Chinese interference. So Turnbull doubled down, quoting Mao Zedong in the process, boasting that he had spent 25 year doing deals in China and knew how they thought.
How wrong he was. Wrong too, apparently, in thinking Mao actually used those words.
Murray says that the Chinese thought that after Rudd and then Abbott, whose “best friend” in Asia was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Turnbull’s unique contemporary understanding of China was expected to significantly improve relations between Beijing and Canberra.
It was noted in academic and government circles in China that Turnbull had deep personal and business connections to the country. As a businessman in the 1990s, he set up one of the first sino-Western joint mining ventures in China, and his son Alex is married to Wang Yiwen, daughter of a former Chinese government-linked academic.
After Turnbull’s crude boast of knowing how the Chinese think, it is slowly emerging that Canberra is being frozen out at the political level. The most blatant example was the recent Boao Forum of Asia, which is:
- a non-profit organisation that hosts high-level forums for leaders from government, business and academia in Asia and other continents to share their vision on the most pressing issues in this dynamic region and the world at large. BFA is modelled on the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland. Its fixed address is in Bo’ao, Hainan province, China, although the Secretariat is based in Beijing. The forum, sometimes known as the “Asian Davos”, takes its name from the town of Boao, located in China’s southern Hainan province, which has been the permanent venue for its annual conference since 2002.
Jennifer Hewett, journalist with the AFR, was there this year at the invitation of Fortescue Metals Group chief Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, who jointly chairs a side meeting of business leaders with Li Ruogu. With Michael Smith and Phillip Coorey, Hewett reports that China has put Turnbull’s government in a deep freeze. President Xi Jinping
addressed the meeting, promising to further open China’s economy to foreign companies and imports.
Turnbull was not invited because, the Chinese say, he had other business to attend to. In fact Turnbull and other ministers had cleared their diaries in expectation of a visit. None came.
- Chinese news outlets, including the English language Global Times, also repeatedly attack Australian government actions and language, further hardening the strongly nationalist sentiment of the Chinese population towards any criticism from Australia.
Murray relates how seven months after he became PM Turnbull in April 2016 addressed the showcase trade and investment event – Australia Week – in Shanghai:
- Turnbull talked up the merits of the China-Australia free trade agreement at a lunch where almost 2000 people from both countries washed down West Australian lobster and Black Angus tenderloin with Penfolds Shiraz.
It has become apparent that there will be no Australia Week this year because no-one can get into the country to organise it.
Also while there is regular contact between senior Australia and Chinese government officials, Frances Adamson, head of the Australian department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, also had a planned visit to China deferred.
- The next event in China celebrating Australia is an AFL match in Shanghai on May 19. This attracted huge crowds for the inaugural game last year and the organisers have invited the Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie but she is now not expected to attend.
Trade Minister Steve Ciobo appears to be the only Australian minister to escape the de facto ban on visits after having been invited to attend China’s big Import Export, a new event to be held in November.
Neither Julie Bishop nor Malcolm Turnbull have been to China since 2016. Both have foreshadowed trips to China later this year. It will be interesting to see whether they make it.
Murray tells us that:
China buys almost a third of Australia’s merchandise exports, sends more than 1.3 million tourists to the country every year and accounts for over a quarter of its international students.
Also our services trade with China is now larger than our iron ore exports to Japan and Korea combined.
Now business is concerned and is urging Turnbull to patch the China rift.
Turnbull is now admitting there is a problem:
- Mr Turnbull said there had been “misunderstandings and mischaracterisations” of the government’s foreign interference laws in China’s state-run media but was confident issues with Beijing would be resolved.
“I regularly correspond with Chinese leaders, both the Premier Li Keqiang and the President Xi Jinping. The relationship is very deep and extensive but from time-to-time there are differences of perception,” he said.
The Chinese are essentially denying that anything different is happening, but it is there for all to see.
The Senior Business Leaders’ Forum, co-founded by Mr Forrest and prominent Chinese businessman Li Ruogu, spent considerable time discussing the tensions between the two countries in their annual gathering on the sidelines of the Boao Forum.
Mr Forrest said that an agreed letter from the business leaders to both Mr Turnbull and Mr Xi would deliver “a pretty strong message about what business needs to take maximum advantage of China’s opening up”.
“It requires a standard of political commentary to match the standards of business professionalism on all sides,” he said.
Over 120 countries list China as their number one trading partner so we’re not as special as we like to think. Around 100 of these were represented at the Boao forum.
Apart from the above, International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells slammed Chinese foreign aid in the Pacific and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce and Defence Minister Marise Payne have railed about the military threat posed by China.
Former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr, who now heads the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, says the government has been hardening its anti-China rhetoric since January 2017 in a bid to impress US President Donald Trump.
In November last year Turnbull held discussions at the East Asia Forum with India, Japan and the United States on the restoration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a regional forum designed to counter the power of China. Currently Turnbull is visiting the UK and Europe. His agenda includes discussions to revamp the Commonwealth to counter China, plus parallel talks with France in relation to a grouping of the former French colonies.
The Chinese, of course, are fully aware of all these activities. The question is how hard they will push to obtain a change of behaviour before the current freeze ends. At the limit, instead of running ships through the South China Sea we could come under pressure over ANZUS and Pine Gap.
There is a disagreement over whether the threat from China is real or overblown. I understand Bob Carr feels Trump is a greater threat than the Chinese. Certainly we seem to be making a special effort since February 2017 to impress Trump with our anti-China stance.
Clive Hamilton has written a book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia which not everyone likes. For example:
Tim Soutphommasane, the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner has described the book as using ‘language (which) flirts with exciting an anti-Chinese or Sinophobic racial sentiment. It recalls old fears about yellow hordes overwhelming a vulnerable white Australia. It all smacks of The Yellow Peril revisited’. Hamilton calls for surveillance and immigration restrictions targeted specifically at Chinese, and for restricting residency to those engaged in a widely defined ‘patriotic agitation’.
David Brophy’s review is essential reading. Bottom line he sees Hamilton’s book as a “McCarthyist manifesto”:
In a rivalry between Beijing’s empire of debt, and Washington’s empire of drones, we should be doing all we can to avoid taking sides.
The tectonic political shifts that have aroused Clive Hamilton’s anxieties are real, and there is no avoiding the political questions that they raise. But to deal with them effectively, we need to find ways to formulate legitimate criticisms of China’s actions without adding to our all-too-rich library of Asian invasion fantasies.
There’s good reason to be wary of foreign money in Australian politics. But let’s shine the same spotlight that fell on Sam Dastyari onto all the back-room lobbying that’s going on. Let’s give our universities the funding they need to resist the many and varied threats that corporate and political interests pose to their integrity. And let’s show some consistency in our anti-imperialism in the Asia-Pacific. Only then might we stand a chance of convincing Chinese in Australia that our policy was grounded in principle, and not xenophobia.