China’s ambassador to Australia made the threats a couple of weeks ago, and now its trade officials seem to be in the process of delivering on them, barley and beef to start with. How is the federal government holding up under the multibillion-dollar pressure on the barley and beef industries? Peter Hartcher specially for The Sydney Morning Herald.
“This is about what sort of country we want to leave to future generations, what sort of country we want to leave to future governments,” says one cabinet minister, not one considered to be hardline in any way. “Our policies are not for sale.”
What policy? At issue is the Australian proposal for an independent, international review of the origins of the coronavirus, and the responses to it. When Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne announced the proposal, Australia was alone. It’s now supported by almost all of the Western world.
Australia and the European Union are due to co-sponsor a resolution to create this inquiry at a ministerial meeting of the World Health Assembly on Monday and Tuesday. Beijing is noisily opposed.
Says another key Australian participant: “There is no sign of any wavering from the inner sanctum. This is a considered strategy and it’s a long game. China has decided to teach us a lesson. It’s a fight to the end.
“If they crack us, once cracked, no future government will stand up to them. Before long we’d be giving them trade concessions on iron ore and there’d be Confucius Institutes on every corner.”
Certainly, when Scott Morrison and Payne met a group of government backbenchers for a private “fireside chat” on China policy on Tuesday, the group came away with a clear impression. “Scott is very strong and very steady on this,” said one.
Internally, Morrison’s consistent message to his government is: “We are going to stand our ground, stick by our values, stick to our principles. We are not going to overreact, we are not going to lash out, we are not going to get emotional.”
The New Zealand Sinologist Anne-Marie Brady says that this is precisely the correct approach for countries like Australia and NZ. “I call it the sound of one person arguing,” Brady says. “In fact, it’s a family secret in my home – you let the person let rip, but you don’t respond.”
Governments need to remain calm and resolute in the face of Chinese bluster, she says. Brady makes the point that China isn’t actually angry at Australia. “It’s putting on a show of anger,” for effect. To respond in any way other than calm resolution is simply to allow Beijing to achieve the effect it seeks.
So Morrison wasn’t just putting on a bit of bravado on Friday when he told a press conference: “What the Australian government is doing is completely unremarkable. We are standing our ground on our values and the things that we know are always important,” he said. “And those things are not to be traded. Ever.”
But what about the chorus of complaints about the government’s position? Some business leaders and state governments have demanded that Australia solve the problem through diplomacy, use some “pragmatism”, to protect the trading relationship.
“That stuff just emboldens Morrison,” says a key participant. “He’s in the trenches on this.”
And, of course, when a business person calls for “pragmatism”, the word used this week by Elders chief executive Mark Allison, he is calling for the abandonment of principle.
A senior cabinet minister says that when an Australian chief executive tries to tell him that the federal government needs to back down in the face of Beijing’s threats, “I tell them to go back to their offices and get their cybersecurity experts to check their computers and see what China is doing to them.”
This week it’s barley exports to China, which were worth $916 million last year, and beef exports to China, valued at $2.6 billion.
What if Beijing goes further, cutting other Australian exports as well? The ambassador’s threat to Australia listed four sectors in particular – beef, wine, tourism and higher education. The Morrison government is braced for it. In fact, companies and industries which ask Trade Minister Simon Birmingham for help get this reply: “Triple-check your export certifications and your labelling so you don’t give them an excuse.”
In public, the government is careful to play along with China’s pretence – its trade complaints against Australia are based purely on trade technicalities. But every member of the government knows full well that this is not about trade. This is about the Chinese Communist Party trying to bully Australia into submission.
“Remember that Morrison is also seeing all the other things that China has been doing to us, most of which aren’t visible to the public,” says an adviser. “The economic coercion just comes on top of all that.”
Recall that Australia’s former national security adviser Duncan Lewis said last year that China was seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system covertly. And that in 2017, when Malcolm Turnbull introduced laws against foreign interference in Australia, he said “we will not tolerate covert, coercive or corrupting behaviour in our country”.
That is the bigger game. We have yet to see the actual enforcement of these laws, but informed sources say that Australia is getting closer to making arrests and deportations under these laws.
Morrison is able to draw strength from three other vital sources. One is the Labor opposition. Anthony Albanese and his leadership group support the government position. Some dishonest media efforts in the past few days have tried to portray Albanese as somehow “soft on China”. To get to this position, they’ve had to conduct some strange contortions.
Albanese’s position, as he told the ABC’s Leigh Sales on Thursday: “Australia is quite right to say that, just as if we have a death in this country that is unexplained we have a coronial inquiry, here we have 300,000 deaths. There is nothing remarkable about saying, ‘Well, we need to know what the cause of that is.’ Not as an academic exercise but so that we can ensure it never happens again.”
This is exactly the government position. Australia’s Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, says that “everyone seems to be on the same page. In terms of the structural policy, Labor is in lockstep with us. Their criticism is about messaging.”
So long as the opposition stands with the government, other criticism is irrelevant and the Chinese Communist Party cannot play one side against the other. The call for an inquiry is a national position, not just a government one.
The second vital source of support for Morrison is also a key factor for Labor. The Australian public overwhelmingly is in favour. Indeed, the people have been years ahead of the elites in their concern about Beijing’s efforts to dominate Australia.
As the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove explains: “Australian opinion has been moving this way for a while. Last year’s Lowy poll showed people’s trust in China dropped by 20 percentage points in a single year, from 52 per cent to 32.
“China’s behaviour has hardened and Australian policy and Australian public opinion has hardened in response.”
A new Lowy poll this week was further evidence. Sixty-eight per cent of people said they felt “less favourable towards China’s system of government” when thinking about its handling of the epidemic. And 93 per cent said Australia had handled it well.
Many Australian politicians have been taken aback at the people’s levels of fear, worry, distrust and even anger at China. “The political class is catching up with the community, 100 per cent,” said a government MP this week. “Even just last year, it was considered impolite to criticise China in political circles.” Why? “It’s been an elite consensus, and elite consensus is a powerful thing.”
Another government MP says that his public criticism of China in recent weeks “gets by far the biggest public response of anything I have ever talked about. It’s off the charts.”
The third vital source of strength is the fact that Australia is not alone. There’s a Chinese proverb that you “strangle the chicken to frighten the monkey”. This has been Beijing’s longstanding practice of picking off one country at a time, hoping to frighten others into submission as it does so.
Continuing that metaphor, Anne-Marie Brady says that “today China isn’t trying to strangle a chicken, it’s trying to strangle the whole roost”. Australia is one of at least eight or 10 countries that China is threatening all at once.
The reason, Brady explains, is simple: “The [Chinese Communist] party is redirecting public anger at Xi away from him and outwards to the outside world. They are deflecting blame internationally to protect the government domestically.”
Beijing’s conduct has only brought Australia’s people and its political leadership closer together. The way it’s going, it will find that it hasn’t strangled many chickens but it has aroused an increasingly angry barnyard.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.