Paul Bongiorno
Entering Trump’s dinner circle

The duchessing of Scott Morrison in Washington begins today with one of the most colourful ceremonies Donald Trump can muster. The United States Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, resplendent in their 18th-century uniforms and playing antique instruments, will perform in the prime minister’s honour on the South Lawn of the White House. This will be followed by the rare privilege of a white-tie official state dinner.

When it comes to bells and whistles few do it better than the Americans. Australia’s ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, is over the moon about it. He says, “The greatest compliment the United States can pay to another country [is] to put on a full state reception.” Not so impressed is the state-owned media in China. One of its outlets says Morrison should be wary about marching to Donald Trump’s tune.

On Wednesday the Global Times published a trenchant opinion piece written by Professor Chen Hong. He is the director of the Australian Studies Centre at a Shanghai university and has an intimate knowledge of Australia–China relations and our politics. Professor Chen noted the American ambassador to Canberra, Arthur Culvahouse, recently urged Australia to have “more confidence and courage to combat China with the US” and described the advice as condescending and self-interested. “Morrison would be better off if he kept Australia’s national interests in mind while savoring foie gras at the White House,” he wrote.

If anyone was unaware of the importance of China to Australia, Chen correctly pointed out that it is the biggest importer of “Australia’s high-quality, market-priced products and services”. He says this means “senseless attempts to decouple the two economies will only be detrimental to the interests and wellbeing of Australia and Australians”. And, on cue, along came further incontrovertible evidence this week to back up his case.

On Thursday the final budget outcome for the 2018-19 financial year was released. At the time of the last budget it was forecast to be a $14.5 billion deficit, which was revised down to $4.2 billion in the midyear review, but now, bingo, a budget in virtual balance. An unforeseen $13.8 billion improvement leaving scarcely a drop of red ink, with a deficit of only $690 million. It’s almost a decade since the global financial crisis drove the government’s books deep into the red. A major contributor to this government being almost back in the black is China – accounting for 31 per cent of everything we sell to the rest of the world, paying higher prices for our iron ore and coal, filling our universities with thousands of fee-paying students, and last year sending one million tourists to visit.

But if you took Scott Morrison at his word in parliament this week, the achievement is all the government’s work. Labor “didn’t know how to manage money” and ran the budget “into disrepair”. Leaving aside the partisan hyperbole, the prime minister had better hope his management isn’t tested in the year ahead as severely as Labor’s was during the GFC. Already there are signs the Trump trade war with China is beginning to take a toll. Australia’s economy is slowing and the minutes of the Reserve Bank’s last meeting show it believes the weak incipient recovery in wages has stalled. Tourism Australia says the number of Chinese visitors to Australia is dropping.

The hoopla in America for this Morrison visit will do nothing to help him manage the strained relationship with Beijing. As the quote from Ambassador Culvahouse illustrates, the Trump administration is not looking for nuance from Australia but for it to choose sides. But America’s containment of China is not in our interests and Morrison knows it.

This goes a long way to explaining why the prime minister was unwilling to own up last Friday to his “Shanghai Sam” comments. They were made at the height of the Turnbull government’s 2017 pursuit of then Labor senator Sam Dastyari for his links with Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo, who not only was a generous donor to the Labor Party but also helped Dastyari pay personal legal fees. On ABC TV’s Q&A, Dastyari admitted he believed he had been “used by Chinese agents of influence”.

While the Turnbull government was successful in claiming this Labor scalp, the tone of its attacks – and the linking of Dastyari’s behaviour with hostile foreign influence – was noticed in Beijing. China pulled up the welcome mat. Our banning of tech giant Huawei from participating in Australia’s 5G mobile network rollout didn’t help the situation. Nor did then foreign minister Julie Bishop’s Singapore speech in 2017, lecturing China on democracy. It’s been more than three years since an Australian prime minister was invited to visit Beijing.

Foreign Affairs sources say the cold shoulder has manifested in petty ways. Our diplomats are shunned at Beijing receptions. Arranging high-level meetings is an almost impossible task. The prime minister’s office is particularly sensitive to any queries about when Morrison is next likely to visit China. The discomfort is made all the more poignant when the likes of billionaire businessman Kerry Stokes publicly urges such a visit to get the relationship back in better shape. Stokes scored an invitation to the White House dinner; clearly he also believes sharing a meal with President Xi Jinping is long overdue.

Ironically Morrison’s “100 per cent behind her” defence of his backbencher Gladys Liu may help his cause in Beijing. Professor Chen described it in his Global Times piece as a “decent gesture” for the prime minister to have condemned the “defamation of Liu’s political allegiance … as ‘casting a smear on Chinese Australians’”. The well-connected Chen says Morrison’s remarks “are significant”. They stand “in contrast to his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull’s reckless spoiling of the Australia–China relations”, Chen writes, adding that “clear reason and judgement have prevailed for Morrison”.

Morrison’s spokesman says the government is committed to a constructive relationship with China “based on mutual benefit and mutual respect within the framework of our comprehensive strategic partnership”. And, for good measure, he adds that Australia urges “both China and the USA to resolve their differences in a manner consistent with World Trade Organization principles”.

But cutting across Morrison’s efforts at détente are the China hawks in his parliamentary party who are not happy with Liu, nor with his handling of her obfuscation. The West Australian reported last Thursday that a “handful of Liberal MPs” had told the newspaper “they wanted a full probe into their colleague to ensure her loyalties were not divided between China and Australia”. There was, according to one MP, a “sense here … that there should have been concerns when she was being chosen to stand as a candidate and I believe those concerns were ignored”. The Liberal Party’s vetting processes were criticised and “sooner or later we have to take off the rose-coloured glasses about what is happening”.

In the senate, Penny Wong successfully won the numbers to have Mathias Cormann explain to parliament the government’s support of Liu. She asked for the government’s response to the allegations, and for assurances to the senate that Liu is a “fit and proper person to remain a member of the Australian parliament”. In response, she got only more support for Liu from the government with no explanations. An angry Wong quoted The West Australian’s report, noting it was “[Andrew] Hastie’s home-town paper”. Hastie is the chair of the influential parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security and an outspoken China hawk. Indeed, he and the committee’s deputy chair, Labor’s Anthony Byrne, have both been mightily concerned by the information conveyed to them in confidential intelligence briefings from our spook agencies.

In the past, it was always a feather in the cap of a prime minister to be able to strike up a close personal relationship with the incumbent US president. Scott Morrison seems almost apologetic for the star treatment he is receiving from Trump. This is not surprising, considering the president’s unpredictability and capricious dealing with other American allies – Britain’s Theresa May is just one example. Before he flew off, Morrison was keen to stress how the importance of the relationship between our two nations transcends leaders’ personalities. And he insisted in a number of interviews that he would be pursuing Australia’s interests. But the Chinese don’t believe it; they see Trump as the puppetmaster. Cartoons in Chinese state media certainly portray it this way.

Morrison sees the fact that we have stood side by side with the US “in every major conflict since the First World War – in the defence of freedom, liberty and democracy” as evidence of the strength of the relationship. The fact is Australia has been, in some of those conflicts, simply more willing than others to do America’s bidding. The assignment of a naval ship and a surveillance aircraft to the Strait of Hormuz, aimed at thwarting Iran, is the latest example.

The escalation of tensions in the region – with Trump warning the US is “locked and loaded”, or at other times “cocked and loaded”, referring to a gun ready to fire at Iran – is a worry. Morrison says he’ll be discussing it with Trump but it’s “very premature” and no one has asked Australia to offer further military support.

It brings to mind that old curse, often attributed to the Chinese: “May you live in interesting times.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 21, 2019 as "Entering Trump’s dinner circle".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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