Australia’s relationship with China has been in a state of crisis for the past year, and relations have degenerated even further over the past two weeks – despite attempts by China to ease tensions.
Last week, Wang Xining, the Chinese deputy head of mission in Australia, took the unprecedented step of appearing at the National Press Club in Canberra to speak and answer questions at a forum about Australia’s current “China crisis.”
Unfortunately, the federal government’s response to Wang’s attempt to reopen meaningful dialogue has been characterised by the same Cold War rhetoric, arrogance and ineptitude that created the crisis in the first place.
It is a far cry from the early 1970s when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam made his ground-breaking visit to China, and his Labor government courageously recognised the legitimacy of the Communist Chinese regime – even before the Nixon administration did.
Wang’s performance at the National Press Club was something of a diplomatic tour de force.
Wang is a charming, intelligent, sophisticated and disarming diplomat – when introduced by the female moderator, for example, he gallantly kissed her proffered hand instead of shaking it.
He then proceeded to placate the audience of mainly hostile media representatives, whilst at the same time firmly expounding China’s views on international relations.
Wang commenced by criticising the oversimplified “monolithic image” that the West has of China, and called for this to be replaced by a “truthful, sophisticated and objective” understanding of the country and its place in the world. He stressed that China was “open for collaboration, but will be very strong in defending our national interests.”
As to the current “China crisis,” Wang cited with approval Churchill’s dictum “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” and suggested that it provided an opportunity to formulate a new basis for China’s relationship with Australia and the West – one based upon “security, affluence and mutual benefit.”
In this context, Wang humorously drew an analogy with Brunnhilde and Siegfried’s purification by fire in Wagner’s Ring Cycle – not the sort of comment usually made by Chinese diplomats.
Wang stressed, however, that China would not accept interference in its internal affairs (he referred disparagingly to America’s disastrous interventions in Iraq and Syria in this context) and that China reserved the right to “adapt” universal values to its particular national needs and priorities, as it saw fit.
Wang was critical of aspects of Australia’s China policies (in particular the decision to ban Huawei from helping to build the nation’s 5G network) but stressed that China “valued Australia’s friendship.”
Pointed questions in relation to freedom of speech, persecution of the Uighurs, and Myanmar were deftly dealt with by espousing the standard Chinese government line on these matters.
Leaving aside the clear ideological content of Wang’s comments (which is a matter for legitimate analysis and criticism), it is obvious that the purpose of his extraordinary appearance at the National Press Club was to ease tensions between China and Australia, and open the possibility for pragmatic dialogue between the two countries.
What has been the Australian government’s reaction to China’s attempted rapprochement?
Not one senior Australian politician has responded favourably to Wang’s overtures. Instead, we’ve had more sabre-rattling.
On Sunday, Defense Minister Peter Dutton said that, while Australia would continue to work with its allies to achieve peace in the region, the chance of a conflict with China over Taiwan “should not be discounted.”
On the same day, Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo (who is slated to become the new secretary of the Department of Defense) delivered an Anzac Day message to his staff.
In the context of referring to escalating tensions over Taiwan, Pezzullo opined that “the drums of war” were beating and that Australia must be prepared “to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight.” He asserted that Australia must become “armed, strong and ready for war” and lavishly praised the rabid Cold War warrior, General Douglas MacArthur.
It would be difficult to imagine a more irresponsible or inflammatory statement than this, or a more dangerous evocation of Cold War rhetoric.
One can only assume that Pezzullo was overcome by an excess of Anzac Day militaristic fervour, and that his utter ignorance of history meant that the tragic aptness of the MacArthur and Anzac analogies was completely lost on him.
MacArthur was, of course, famously sacked by President Truman for wanting to invade China during the Korean War.
Anzac Day is the day on which the nation celebrates the courage of those Australian and New Zealand soldiers who were killed on a doomed mission to invade the Dardanelles during World War I – masterminded by incompetent British politicians and military leaders.
It is to be hoped that Pezzullo’s wish for an antipodean MacArthur to emerge and recreate a modern version of the Gallipoli campaign in the South China Sea remains unfulfilled.
Does Pezzullo seriously believe that Australian military forces could defeat China if war broke out over Taiwan – or that Australian troops should be sacrificed in order to prop up America’s wavering commitment to Taiwan’s independence?
Does he really believe that statements of the kind he made on Sunday will solve the China crisis, or ease tensions between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan?
Unfortunately, Pezzullo’s crude and vulgar mindset is typical of that of most of the Australian senior public servants dealing with the China issue today.
Last week, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced that the federal government would tear up the Belt and Road Initiative agreement that the Victorian government signed with China in 2019. “This isn’t about any one country,” said Payne, apparently expecting to be believed. The Chinese embassy in Canberra responded by describing the move as “unreasonable and provocative.”
It was, of course, the perpetually inept Payne who triggered the China crisis last year by calling for an inquiry into the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic without first raising the matter with the Chinese.
Calls this week have also been made for the government to tear up the 2015 agreement between the Northern Territory government and a Chinese company that leased the port of Darwin to the company for 99 years.
It is obvious that both these agreements should never have been entered into – but federal governments at the time, keen to benefit from Chinese investment in Australia no matter what the consequences, did absolutely nothing to stop them. Unilateral dismantlement by Australia now can only further alienate China.
These reactions to Wang’s appearance at the National Press Club do not augur well for the future.
Instead of seeking to engage in a pragmatic dialogue with China – that recognises that nation’s legitimate strategic interests, and the fact that China is a major world power and Australia is not – Australian politicians and bureaucrats seem determined to indulge themselves in acts of retribution and puerile war mongering.
There is also a dangerous aspect to Australia’s Cold War posturing – it may encourage American belligerence and intransigence on the Taiwan issue.
Australia’s relationship with America is a close one (more so since the breach with China), and we should not forget that it was the conservative government of Robert Menzies in Canberra that forcefully encouraged the Kennedy administration to escalate its involvement in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Menzies, of course, was another Cold War warrior.
Hopefully, President Biden has learnt the lessons taught by the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and will, at all costs, avoid a war with China over Taiwan. Hopefully, too, he has moved beyond the crude Cold War type demonisation of China that is currently flourishing within government circles in Australia.
Last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying: “We urge Australia to set aside its Cold War mentality and ideological bias, and view bilateral cooperation in an objective and rational light”.
Unfortunately, no one in the Australian government appeared to be listening.
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