National Security

Panda diplomacy in black and white

June 22, 2024

Saturday 22 June 2024
Paul Bongiorno
The Saturday Paper

 Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 35-year veteran of  the Canberra Press Gallery. The first visit of a Chinese premier to Australia  in seven years perfectly demonstrated the complexity of the relationship with  our biggest customer. It also confirmed that for Australias continued  prosperity, accommodating Beijing is not optional.
 Two-way trade with China was a record $327 billion in 2023, accounting for 27  per cent of Australias total goods and services trade. Thats higher than our  next five trading partners combined, as Minister for Trade Don Farrell is  quick to point out.
 While the percentage has dropped since the emerging superpower applied trade  bans that forced some exporters to seek other markets, China is by far  Australias biggest destination for exports and source of export opportunity.
 Strategic and defence expert Hugh White says that for the first time in our  history our biggest customer is not a mate, as in Britain, or the mate of a  mate, as in postwar American ally Japan.
 This is a reality the China hawks are finding hard to come to terms with.  Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was indignant to learn China was  cyber spying on our utilities and other assets. As if powers great and small  dont indulge in espionage.
 Joyce told morning TV, Beijing can take your pandas back, after it was  announced a new couple is being sent on an extended loan to Adelaide Zoo. He  said Australia was weak for not standing up for itself.
 The biggest issue for your kids in the future ... your grandkids, is not a  war against the weather, its how we can sustain ourselves with a military  superpower thats run by a totalitarian regime, he said.
 Joyce seems to be suggesting Australia should have nothing to do with China,  the same belligerent attitude that led to his own National Party constituents  being hardest hit by trade bans.
 Farrell says the winemakers, barley growers, beef producers and miners all  want to know whether the Dutton government, if they were to come to power,  would go back to where the relationship was or would they support the  stabilised relationship established by the Albanese government.
 Anthony Albanese could rightly claim the visit by Premier Li Qiang was  another important step in stabilising Australias relationship with China.  Notice the prime minister was careful not to claim his government had  embarked on a process of normalising relations. This is a calculated framing,  based on a hard-nosed assessment that while China has abandoned its so-called  wolf warrior diplomacy, replacing it with a cuddlier panda variety, this is  no return to the way things were five or 10 years ago.
 The intervening nosedive in relations triggered particularly by the Morrison  governments world-leading call for an independent international inquiry into  the origin of Covid-19 and a subsequent attempt to leverage domestic  political advantage by attacking China led to fierce retaliation.
 Peter Dutton, as defence minister in the 2022 election campaign, conflated  the presence of a Chinese warship in international waters, hundreds of  kilometres offthe Australian coast, with some sort of threat. Inciting  national security fears always plays well for the conservatives, or so the  thinking obviously went.
 No one in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade doubts the more than  $20 billion worth of trade bans would be reapplied should any Australian government  repeat this lack of sophistication.
 It has taken two years of hard work to undo the damage caused by the Morrison  Coalition. Albanese says his government has restored high-level dialogue and  engagement with China through our patient, calibrated and deliberate  approach.
 Allan Behm, an international relations specialist at The Australia Institute,  says in foreign affairs it is shared interests that always take precedence  over shared values. The Chinese clearly see it is more in their interest to keep  importing primarily our commodities and particularly our critical minerals  than to be worried by our strategic alliance with the United States.
 Diplomacy is all about the application of intelligence and tact in the  pursuit of convergent interests, says Behm.
 We got a sense of the new status quo from Premier Li on his arrival in  Adelaide. He said Beijing was seeking common ground while shelving  differences in order to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation between the  two nations.
 Dutton in his formal speech at a state luncheon reciprocated these  sentiments, telling Li his delegation was most welcome here as dear friends  and guests. He added that he hoped the tensions of recent years can  ameliorate.
 Dutton sought to repair his relationship with Chinese Australians in his  speech, aware they deserted the Coalition at the last election. He celebrated  them and noted they have helped to build our nation.
 Labors Jerome Laxale in Bennelong says anger at Morrison and Dutton played a  big part in him winning the seat from the Liberals in 2022. He says he was  elected because Chinese Australians wanted Labor to restore relations with  Beijing and address the antagonism towards them generated by the Coalitions  implication some were spies for their ancestral motherland.
 The Liberals have preselected Chinese Australian businessman Scott Yung, who  ironically may see his candidacy taken from him following changes to  electoral boundaries. But a candidate of Chinese heritage is no sure-fire  winner; Labors Jason Yat-sen Li failed to win Bennelong in 2013.
 A key Labor campaigner says Chinese Australians want respect and not to be  patronised. Laxale says there is still deepseated resentment of Peter Dutton  in the electorate that the new boundaries have done nothing to counter.
 Earlier on Monday, Duttons shadow minister for home affairs, James Paterson,  was nowhere near as enthusiastic as his leader. He told the The Sydney  Morning Herald: Its up to the prime minister to explain how you can have a  stable relationship with an authoritarian power that is determined to  threaten our infrastructure assets, interfere in our democracy and intimidate  Australian citizens into silence.
 Paterson, who was a founding member of the wolverines, a bipartisan group of  China hawk parliamentarians, frames this trenchant criticism in the context  of China being an imminent strategic threat intent on invading us. Hugh  White, like Allan Behm and our own diplomats, believes this is overblown. He  says the only way we will have military conflict with China in the short to  medium term is if we go to war with it. This scenario presumes, as Dutton  flagged when he was in government, Australia would automatically join the US  in any showdown with China over Taiwan.
 There is no certainty Donald Trump, should he win the US presidency in  November, would be as keen as Joe Biden to go to war over Taiwan. The US in  1972, like Australia, accepted Taiwan was a Chinese province. Australias  commitment to its one-China policy was reaffirmed in the joint leaders  statement on Monday.
 White holds to his view that any direct hostilities between China and the US  would inevitably lead to nuclear conflict. You would hope this is reason  enough to pursue the status quo, a position Foreign Affairs Minister Penny  Wong restated on Sunday morning television.
 Albanese and Wong have no illusions China is easy to deal with or that it can  be bothered much with democratic niceties. An incident involving Australian  journalist Cheng Lei at the Parliament House document-signing ceremony was  proof enough of this. Cheng had been detained for almost three years in China  for breaching national security and her release last October came after  diplomatic representations made by Wong and Albanese.
 Chinese embassy stafftried to block Cheng, who now works for Sky News, from  the view of cameras at Mondays event. An Australian official intervened on  her behalf. Albanese told a news conference immediately after the signing he  was unaware of the kerfuffle. Don Farrell, who was metres away from Cheng,  said he saw nothing untoward.
 Paterson and Dutton led a pile-on accusing Albanese of being weak and not  standing up for Australia. It was over the top and without any sense of  proportion to the much bigger purpose of the day. With no grounds, they even  accused Albanese of lying.
 In a number of radio interviews the following day, Albanese said the actions  of the Chinese officials were ham-fisted and clumsy. Farrell said the prime  minister raised the incident directly with Premier Li.
 Duttons response showed he hasnt learnt much from the 2022 election. If it  applies to Chinese relations, it is even more pertinent to his  nuclear-centred climate change policies.
 Midweek, he named seven sites for nuclear reactors, claiming the first could  come online in 11 to 13 years. All would be paid for and owned by the  Australian government in a similar arrangement to Snowy 2.0. No costs were  given, but if the hydro project is the template, he has a tough selling job  ahead of him.
 When Malcolm Turnbull announced Snowy 2.0, the scheme was to be completed in  2021 at a cost of $2 billion. That has blown out to $13 billion and the  revised completion date of 2028 is now highly unlikely.
 The Smart Energy Council says Dutton has unveiled a coal-keeper policy. The  minister for climate change, Chris Bowen, says the plan is too slow, too  expensive and too risky.
 The International Energy Agency says China in the five years to 2028 will  account for 56 per cent of the worlds additional renewable energy.
 Nuclear now provides 4.6 per cent of Chinas energy while renewables account  for 30 per cent of total generation and growing. The pandas are more plugged  in than we have been led to believe. It has taken two years of hard work to  undo the damage caused by the Morrison Coalition. Albanese says his  government has restored high-level dialogue and engagement with China through  our patient, calibrated and deliberate approach.

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