The behaviour of China’s diplomat in Australia this past week has been described as “outrageous” as experts contemplate whether it’s time to rethink the relationship between the two countries.
Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove told Q&A on Monday night that the behaviour of Chinese diplomats in the past week had “focused a lot of minds in Australia and around the world about the kind of country we are dealing with”.
China lashed out at Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week, warning Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus would spark a travel and trade boycott.
“Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’,” Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye told the Australian Financial Review.
Mr Fullilove said Australia needed to keep “two things in our head at once” when considering its relationship with China.
“China is our most important economic partner, a country with which we have deep economic interests and we’re going to need those economic relationships even more as we come out of the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
“But it’s also a super power, a country of 1.4 billion people — very different from Australia — run by a Leninist political system.”
He said Chinese diplomats were engaging more in “wolf warrior” diplomacy and pushing back hard against countries where they are based to impress Beijing and President Xi Jinping.
“I think we are seeing, the last week has seen outrageous behaviour I would say from China’s diplomatic representatives in Australia,” Mr Fullilove said.
“What if Australia’s ambassador and consul general behaved in China the way Chinese diplomats behaved in Australia? I think they’d be given short thrift.
“We have seen this kind of behaviour over the last three or four years. Wolf warrior diplomacy. Many countries are feeling this.”
Liberal MP for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, who was the former ambassador to Israel, said he thought the comments were “quite unconventional”.
“I think partly they’re speaking to a domestic audience in China, in Beijing. And only partly are they speaking to us,” he said.
But he agreed that the Chinese style of defining and putting forward its interests had changed pretty dramatically over the last several years.
“I think there is still a tendency in Australia to think if something is going wrong with the relationship it must be our fault,” he said.
“Well, I think the event of the last week have shown people that, no, it’s not necessarily Australia’s fault.
‘We are going to have differences with this country. We still need to find a way to work and trade with them but there will be points of friction.”
Asked whether if the events of this week had been an escalation, Mr Sharma said he thought it was more of a “testing of strength and limits” from China’s side.
“I think in the broad sweep of history we’ll look back on the last week and we won’t think much of it. It will be a foot note,” he said.
SHOULD AUSTRALIA PUSH BACK?
Q&A host Hamish McDonald asked whether Australia needed to push back against China?
“I think we need to be clear and consistent. I think we have been,” Mr Sharma said.
“We’ve been quite clear and consistent in saying we want to have, and we think the world deserves, an international inquiry into the origins of this crisis.
“Beijing doesn’t particularly like that suggestion, or at least the way we phrased it. But we have no intention of backing down from it.”
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong agreed China had been much more assertive in how it pushes its interests.
“It’s a great power. It’s a great economic power. And it’s asserting its interests,” she said.
She also warned against thinking that disengagement was an option.
“Sometimes we have a discussion, a political discussion within the Australian domestic political context which seems to suggest we’ve got some choice in which we can disengage from China,” she said this was not true “economically or geopolitically”.
Ms Wong said she thought COVID-19 was changing the international environment.
“I think what it is doing is escalating the strategic competition between America and China,” she said. “I think it is demonstrating multilateralism is weaker.”
She said this would make it harder for Australia, and it would have to work harder to promote its interests.
“That’s going to require leadership. It’s going to require consistency and discipline. And it’s
getting to require the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, and the Foreign Minister to lead the discussion about how we manage our way in this very disrupted world.”
However, China is Australia’s largest trading partner and one viewer questioned whether the country could afford to cause so much tension.
Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson said she thought it was good that the Australian Government had stood up to the Chinese Government.
“I think part of the reason why the Chinese Government has reacted so badly is because we very rarely see Australia’s voice on issues in China. And I think that needs to change,” she said.
“I think China’s showing it’s a bully. And I think the way you deal with bullies is you don’t just roll over and pipe down. You do have to stand up to them.”
‘COALITION OF THE COMPETENT’
But Ms Pearson said it shouldn’t be an Australia-China discussion.
“The whole world is affected by this pandemic and I really think it’s important that other countries come on board.
“I think Australia should work with a coalition of like-minded governments who are also concerned about the impact of this pandemic and really want to make sure a situation like this can’t happen again.”
Mr Sharma said what unpinned Australia’s relationship with China is that it was complementary.
“We don’t trade with China to do them a favour and they don’t buy things from us because it’s a favour to us,” he said.
“They buy it because it’s good quality, reliable supply.”
He said the three countries from whom China imported the most goods were South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, adding that they were “not three countries with whom you’d think China normally has good relations”.
The panel was also asked whether Australia needed to stand on its own two feet more as it looked like the United States was acting more like a “drunken old uncle” than a “strong and powerful father”.
Mr Fullilove said he believed the US remained an overwhelmingly benign force in the world.
“We do have to be an independent country, independent of the US, independent of China,” he said. “It’s much too early to walk away from the US alliance.”
He said one of the interesting things to come out of the pandemic was how the big superpowers like the US, China and even Europe had done quite poorly in many ways.
“Whereas the smaller countries, the more agile well-run countries like Australia and New Zealand and Taiwan and South Korea have done much better,” he said.
“If we can have a Trans-Tasman bubble, if we can work more with some of those other effective well-run countries, a kind of ‘coalition of the competent’, I think that would be great.”