“Stabilised relationship” a myth made in China

Stabilised relations with China? There’s little sign of it in the Philippines, where Chinese Coastguard and maritime militia vessels continue to undertake dangerous harassment of Filipino vessels in their own waters.

On March 28, following the latest disturbing attacks involving Chinese vessels using water cannons, the President of the Philippines declared that his country would stand firm in the face of what he described as “open, unabating, and illegal, coercive, aggressive, and dangerous attacks by agents of the China Coast Guard and the Chinese Maritime Militia”.

On the very same day however, Australians were getting a very different message about China when our Foreign Minister posted a self-congratulatory message to social media (complete with a Labor Party logo) proclaiming “Breaking! China lifts tariffs on Australian wine”.

You won’t find a better example of how Australians are being told to focus on the money that can be made from China rather than the very worrying and increasingly aggressive behaviour of the Chinese Government.

The China which Australia is dealing with is the same China the Philippines is dealing with. It’s the same China which openly supports Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. It’s the same China to which our allies in the UK, US and New Zealand last month attributed major malicious cyber operations targeting politicians and parliamentary networks. It’s the same China which is working increasingly closely with Russia, Iran, and North Korea in an axis which is testing and gauging western reaction to aggressive and dangerous behaviour.

None of this is changed by the sale of Australian red wine to China. But from certain quarters in Australia there is a resurgence of commentary telling us we should focus on trade and investment rather than other issues in the relationship (which happens to also be Beijing’s view), that problems in the relationship were caused by the former Australian Government (also Beijing’s oft-stated position), and that open discussion by Australian media or members of parliament of China’s many destabilising and unfriendly activities around the world should be avoided (another frequent demand from Beijing).

While we can welcome the Chinese Government belatedly lifting some of the unfair tariffs and sanctions it implemented as part of a coercion strategy, we have no excuse not to be awake now to the way the Chinese Government uses trade and investment to manipulate discourse and gain leverage.

This month it was reported that Beijing has marked Australia as a “priority location for Chinese businesses to expand”, with a 100-strong Chinese business delegation is heading to Australia this month.

Beijing has not been subtle in its messaging that Australia and other nations should be focusing on trade and staying quiet about human rights issues or China’s aggressive behaviour. We’ve seen plenty of the ‘stick’ part of the carrot and stick approach they employ, and now the carrot is being dangled again.

Some commentators have described China’s issuing of the infamous fourteen grievances and subsequent raft of trade sanctions to punish Australia as being ineffective or counter-productive for Beijing. Yet here we are in 2024, back into an environment where we’re once again being told to restrain our commentary on China’s aggression in the South China Sea, partnership with Russia, detention of Australian citizens, malicious cyber activity and large-scale foreign interference and espionage attempts, and to look instead to the trade and investment opportunities that lie ahead. Would Beijing’s diplomats be admonishing themselves for mistakes made in their approach to Australia as they watch the Foreign Minister posting triumphantly about red wine?

Australia must not be distracted from understanding, and talking about, the real pattern of the Chinese Government’s behaviour. If we are, we risk walking into the trap and winding the clock back to a time when pursuing trade with China often did come at the expense of due caution and risk assessment. Recent history, and geopolitical instability in our region, clearly demonstrate that’s a risk we cannot afford to take.