Frozen and fractured

An underlying cause of the bad Australia-China relations

21 May 2021 | CCCA (Image: Michael R Fenton & APAC News)

By now, the frozen and fractured relationship between Australia and China is a household word in Australia with constant beating of war drums and the chest beating and posturing. This has become the norm replacing the gone pragmatic diplomacy between the two nations.

In the SMH article “Never been bigger: PM says Australia is weathering China-trade fight” (19May2021). Peter Hartcher reported comments made by the PM Morrison who said “Australia would prefer a better relationship with China but that Beijing’s trade sanctions are like the traditional lion dance – most theatrical”. 

Theatrics is an art of posturing and depending on the cultural interpretation of the targeted audience, it could become offensive.  The PM’s example of the Lion Dance (“paper lion”) fits into this category although most Australians would not react to it   Similarly, if the Chinese calls the PM’s posturing as “Boxing Kangaroos”(“paper kangaroo”), Australian might also considered that slightly offensive.  Overall, the PM has been circumspect with his words to move the relationship forward.

A major source of the adverse relations with China is the passing of foreign interference and espionage laws, seeming directed at China intentionally.  This subject appeared to be a taboo but the China Matters (think tank) this week brought up the subject for public debate.  It  is especially difficult for Chinese Australians to talk of it fearing it criticises the current narrative of the mainstream and government and community.  It seems many are scared to say anything and just cop it in silence.

China Matters has published a new report, What should Australia do about… its foreign interference and espionage laws? Co-authors: Melissa Conley Tyler  and Julian Dusting.

Tyler was previously National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. She is Research Associate at the Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne and Dusting is a graduate of the University of Melbourne and is studying for a Juris Doctor at Monash University. They write:

The espionage threat against Australia is at an unprecedented level, according to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) a major source of this threat. Australia also faces wider issues around foreign interference by the PRC including United Front work and intimidation of Chinese Australians by PRC nationalists. 

To respond to this threat, Australia has put in place three key pieces of legislation: the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 (“Espionage and Foreign Interference Act”); the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 (“FITS”); and Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act 2020 (“Foreign Relations Act”). While the laws were drafted to be country-neutral, political announcements have made it clear that the PRC is a prime target. Former Prime Minister Turnbull, in 2018, explicitly described the first two laws as the Australian people “standing up” to the PRC. 

These three laws are flawed. They are too widely cast – subjecting large new areas of activity to national security scrutiny – and poorly focused – scrutinising links and connections, rather than improper conduct. They have had demonstrable negative impacts on Australia-PRC relations and on individual Chinese Australians. 

Finally, former Ambassador Dennis Argall joined in the ranks of prominent Australians who writes in Pearls and Irritations, Our distorted perspectives, our ignorance, is now  more dangerous than the situation leading to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. We have experienced a sudden end to immediate knowledge of Asia including China We are vulnerable thus to pandemics of media misinformation.

As reported in the last edition of the CCCA Newsletter, a Lowy Institute report found most Australians do not favour a war with China. We might change our current attitude if the mainstream media (MSM) would expose the disastrous consequences of war, including mutually assured destruction (MAD), rather than glorifying it to a public potentially suffering short-term memory loss over the bad wars Australia has been dragged into.

This commentary is supplied by the Chinese Community Council of Australia Incorporated: Founding President, Dr Anthony Pun OAM, President, Mr Kingsley Liu. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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