Ten­sions con­fronted on China

Can­berra must be al­lowed to deal with Bei­jing unim­peded

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY -

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.


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