Tensions confronted on China
Canberra must be allowed to deal with Beijing unimpeded
The past week has been pivotal in the crucial Sino-Australian relationship, with a rapprochement of sorts; a toughminded foreign investment decision by Canberra; a strategic announcement aimed at countering Chinese influence in the Pacific; and a messy controversy in Victoria underlining the tensions and complexities of bilateral dealings. With all these swings and roundabouts to consider, it is just possible that we may look back on the week as one where we saw a maturing in the relationship from both sides. We have many mutual interests with China, especially on trade, but there is also friction in some spheres (not only on strategic issues but also in economic development), and all of this demands constant attention and a willingness to recognise each other’s perspectives and responsibilities. Both Canberra and Beijing must recognise that this necessarily entails constant engagement because the past two years of frosty relations, in which visits and meetings have been shunned by China, have been unproductive.
The two-hour meeting in Beijing between Foreign Minister Marise Payne and her counterpart Wang Yi represents a public thawing in relations. It is most welcome and, by all accounts, has been well handled by both sides. The imperative for improvement was encapsulated by Mr Wang’s call for “more positive energy and less negative energy” in the relationship.
Energy, indeed, is the key, with China reliant on our coal and gas to fuel its economy and the processing of iron ore and other minerals from Australia. In Australia, too, energy is a particularly sensitive topic when it comes to investment. Josh Frydenberg’s indication that Canberra would block a $13 billion bid by Hong Kong-based CK Infrastructure to take over major gas pipeline company APA Group would have been seen as a slap in the face by Beijing. The Treasurer says in this case the nationality of the potential investor was not a factor; rather, the investment was rejected because the asset was considered to be too strategic for foreign ownership. The Weekend Australian applauds the decision as the national interest must always be protected when it comes to vital infrastructure. It came just hours before Ms Payne’s meeting, which gave her the chance to eyeball Mr Wang and explain the context of the decision. This is how mature bilateral relationships must work, as inevitable tensions arise over myriad issues. Despite all the crucial strategic and economic issues in play, Ms Payne raised fresh human rights concerns over China’s treatment of minorities. This is as it should be.
Apart from the CKI pipeline decision, the underlying tensions at the Beijing meeting were heightened by Scott Morrison’s announcement of a $3bn infrastructure plan as part of a new diplomatic push into the Pacific. With Australia opening new diplomatic missions, providing increased military co-operation, boosting media links and funding more infrastructure in the region, it is seen as a deliberate attempt by the Prime Minister to counter growing Chinese influence. This is a wise (if overdue) rebalancing of our foreign policy posture to our region that has bipartisan support from Labor.
Yet domestic dilemmas in managing the complex China relationship have been brought home through a clumsy and ill-advised agreement struck by Victoria’s Labor Premier, Daniel Andrews. His memorandum of understanding with China over the Belt & Road Initiative cuts across national foreign policy and even the stance of his own federal party. Mr Andrews did not involve the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or consult Canberra, even though foreign relations are clearly the federal government’s responsibility. The Premier cannot undo the diplomatic coup for China or the embarrassment for Australia, but he must make the text of the agreement public for the sake of transparency and public confidence. With the AustraliaChina strategic and economic links so important and complicated, the last thing we need is for state governments to get above their station and muddy the waters. Unlike in Hong Kong, “one country, two systems” won’t cut it here. Let’s leave China to Canberra.