Op-Ed: Australia must continue to stand our ground

When Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he did so backed by the assurance of the “no limits partnership” the Chinese Government struck with him days earlier.

This is the Chinese Government which is holding Australian citizens in arbitrary detention, and which continues to try to manipulate Australian policy through trade embargoes. It is also the Chinese Government whose actions have precipitated urgent reviews of our defence capabilities and the commitment of hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decade to protect our nation from potential aggression.

In August a UN report found that Chinese authorities are likely responsible for severe human rights violations in Xinjiang against the Uighur population. We still await any response from the Labor Government on the application of Magnitsky-style sanctions that Australia legislated last year for exactly this type of scenario.

With all of this happening, it is surprising that much Australian commentary around China has slipped into highly optimistic talk of “thawing relationships” and “mutual business opportunities”, as if the realities of the Chinese Government’s actions fade into the background with the exchange of diplomatic niceties.

The Chinese tactic of refusing to meet with Australian officials in recent years was intended to send a message to Australia. Beijing has been saying – sometimes very explicitly – that high-level meetings will recommence when it is happier with Australia’s behaviour. By doing so it positions top-level meetings – and the lifting of trade embargoes on Australian goods - as prizes for Australia to win, rather than as a normal and regular part of any foreign relationship.   

Last week Trade Minister Don Farrell responded to a Coalition question about the delayed opening of a grant program for Australian wine producers by implying that China’s trade embargoes on Australian wine were the fault of the Australian Government. “You had a chance to repair the damage to China, and you did nothing!” yelled the Minister, in reference to Chinese Government actions widely acknowledged as a deliberate attempt to coerce Australia into changing policy positions.

Such comments are undoubtedly pleasing to Beijing as the Labor Government negotiates a meeting between Albanese and Xi, but don’t feel much like standing our ground on coercion.

Australia, under the previous government, was praised around the world for our efforts in standing up to the Chinese administration’s efforts at coercion. In February this year, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pointed out that we had “set an incredibly powerful example” and were leading the world on standing up to the Chinese Government. If Australia’s firm stance was leading the world just six months ago, it is more than simply a “change of tone” for Foreign Minister Wong to be talking seven months later about Australia taking “many steps” to achieve “a more stable relationship” with Xi Jinping.

Australians should be told what these steps might be, and what ‘stable relationship’ the Labor Government believes is possible with a Chinese regime set on its current trajectory. If Australia’s previous position was an example to the world and the actions we’ve taken to protect our interests fully supported (at the time) by both sides of politics, then what is to be altered as we take these “many steps”, or as the Chinese Foreign Ministry puts it, “meet halfway”? Halfway from what? On which issues?

The reality is that China’s Government remains a backer of Russia. They’ve proven they will use trade embargoes to try and manipulate Australian policy. Their stated intentions regarding Taiwan risks creating a major global conflict. This is not the time for Australia to drop our world-leading approach to standing up for our sovereignty and national interests.