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As the prime minister tries to calm concerns about tensions with China, Kevin Rudd says the idea Morrison is taking a consultative approach is ‘nonsense’. By Rick Morton.

Exclusive: Scott Morrison misrepresents China advice

Prime Minister Scott Morrison arriving for a press conference in Brisbane on January 22.
Credit: AAP Image / Darren England

Shortly after his election victory in May 2019, Scott Morrison hosted Kevin Rudd at Kirribilli House in Sydney. It was a private meeting, set up to discuss the significant tensions between Australia and China.

The catch-up was Rudd’s idea. He reached out to the newly elected prime minister to “offer whatever insights I had on how to handle the difficulties of the Australia–China relations”.

What happened next surprised Rudd. “I then discovered that the government’s China policy was heading in a completely different direction,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

In the 18 months that followed, Morrison would make one apparent “misstep” after another – sometimes for the right reasons, but executed poorly in a diplomatic sense.

In late 2019 both Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne criticised China’s subjugation and imprisonment of Uygurs and other Muslim minorities. Less than six months later, the Morrison government unilaterally called for an independent inquiry into the Covid-19 outbreak. Shortly after that, it announced a further crackdown on foreign investment, with an implicit focus on China.

In the background, members of Morrison’s government have, seemingly without rebuke, racially profiled Chinese Australians in a parliamentary inquiry. A number of these MPs have joined with Labor members in forming a group called the “Wolverines” to push back against what they see as the growing threat of an aggressive China.

In retaliation, China has blocked the import of key Australian products, such as lobster, barley, wine and coal.

Last week, Labor leader Anthony Albanese wrote a letter to Morrison imploring him to seek the advice of, or even draft as special envoys, former prime ministers John Howard and Rudd to resolve the trade war standoff with China.

When asked, Morrison said he spoke with Howard regularly and “some time ago, and even more recently, I was connecting with Prime Minister Rudd about these matters”.

This is news to Rudd.

“Mr Morrison’s statement is a nonsense,” he says. “Since [the Kirribilli meeting] I have only had two text exchanges with Mr Morrison. The first was during the early stages of the pandemic, when I offered to help the government obtain supplies of PPE from overseas.

“The second was before my interview with [Chinese Foreign Minister] Wang Yi for the Asia Society. Mr Morrison’s advice was simply to repeat to Wang Yi the Australian government’s public lines on the state of the relationship. I did not believe that would productively advance the relationship given where it was. Nonetheless, I sent both Mr Morrison and the secretary of DFAT a full transcript of Wang’s remarks, including his response to the specific questions I raised with him about unfreezing the Australia–China relationship.

“If Mr Morrison is inferring that the current direction of Australia’s China strategy has been based on any substantive consultation with me, let alone any support on my behalf, that is a patent falsehood.”

Irrespective of the advice the prime minister is following, some China watchers fear the relationship between Morrison and Chinese President Xi Jinping may already be damaged beyond repair.

“I suspect that Xi Jinping, in terms of a serious political kind of rapprochement, may well have already given up on Canberra for the time being,” Dr James Curran, professor of modern history at the University of Sydney, tells The Saturday Paper.

“But I’m not suggesting that anybody else has the magic key to unlock the door again. This is just going to bump along the bottom for a while yet.”

This week, Xi gave a speech at Davos, four years since he last attended the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. Via video link, he warned against “a new Cold War”.

“To build small circles, or start a new Cold War; to reject, threaten or intimidate others; to wilfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions; and to create isolation or estrangement, will only push the world into division and even confrontation,” Xi said.

“… There will be no human civilisation without diversity, and such diversity will continue to exist for as long as we can imagine.

“Difference in itself is no cause for alarm. What does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice and hatred. It is the attempt to impose hierarchy on human civilisation, or to force one’s own history, culture and social system upon others.”

According to seasoned China watchers, this was a transparent rejection of American foreign policy – and its steadfast allies such as Australia – which Beijing sees as a threat to its sovereignty. It was yet another shot across the bow.

Curran says Morrison’s speeches show he has been very careful to avoid this particular issue.

“He has said he is not interested in a Cold War,” Curran says. “He doesn’t want a binary prism to understand US–China relations. He said he doesn’t want a zero-sum approach to these questions. He has actually said ‘I want a state of happy coexistence’ with China. Clearly, he believes engagement lives in some form.

“But in the background there have been all these other voices, whether it be the Wolverines in parliament or boisterous commentators at certain think tanks in Canberra … all these other voices have then made it very difficult for the government to make the kinds of gestures on the Australian side that are necessary to get this relationship back on track.

“Of course, that effort has to be two-way. China needs to move too. But will it? It’s supercharged with confidence at the moment.”

The problem now, of course, is that the government having got itself into tense relations with Australia’s largest trade partner – China still hasn’t taken calls from Australia’s leaders – it is not in the country’s interests to back down on matters of principle.

“It’s a hard question now because we have staked out a whole variety of positions and, since China is putting us under such incredible pressure, you cannot unwind them, you know, in a casual way,” says Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.

“Because then you are simply succumbing to pressure and you will look weak. Or you will look pliable, maybe is a better way of putting it, as you can be easily manipulated.”

What can change, Curran says, is the background noise and incendiary pot shots.

“Coherence in our China policy is hard – perhaps impossible – but we need to at least try to bring the various elements together in a way that we haven’t to date. Until we do so we are going to keep shooting ourselves in the foot,” he says.

“The policy seems to be based on ad-hoc-ery at the moment. If it is thought through, it seems to be primarily about Australia leading the China ‘pushback’. We know Trump’s team expressed appreciation for that but is it a long-term solution? I doubt it.”

The balance is not simply one of diplomacy but also one of business. As former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull noted in his memoir, the Australian public is especially sensitive to this.

“An Australian prime minister who ends up in conflict with China cannot expect any support or solidarity from the Australian business community,” Turnbull wrote. “Overwhelmingly, they’re totally invested in the economic benefits of the relationship and, as I saw many times, they’ll always blame their own government if problems arise, even if the problems have nothing to do with government policy.”

In late 2017, during the Bennelong byelection, Turnbull was questioned about the then-proposed foreign interference laws, which were largely drafted in response to increasingly brazen attempts by China to buy, meddle with or otherwise influence Australian governments.

He responded with a favourite and oft-repeated line: “Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words: Zhongguo renmen zhanqi lai. The Chinese people have stood up.

“It was an assertion of sovereignty; it was an assertion of pride. And we stand up, and so we say [in Mandarin] The Australian people have stood up.”

Speaking with The Saturday Paper, Turnbull says the idea advanced by Beijing and some domestic commentators that the line was an “insult” is “absolutely laughable”. His reaction to that line now doubles as advice for the current administration: stand your ground.

“The key thing to remember, the key concept to understand here, is that all of this stuff – the indignation, the voracious headlines, the ministerial freeze-outs, the trade boycotts – are all entirely instrumental,” he says.

“They are designed to achieve an objective and if the objective is not achieved, well, ultimately, they will abandon them because it is pointless.

“Of course, the problem is if you start responding to that pressure, you will only get more of it.”

Turnbull explains the issue like this: “Look, Xi Jinping is a very formal guy. While he’s been open, and he can be quite droll, he doesn’t depart from the parameters. He is very disciplined. One of the problems that Australia has is that we don’t have the sort of range of informal back channels, other than through the intelligence community, that we should have.

“It’s not a deficiency on Australia’s part so much; it is the very buttoned-down nature of Xi’s China now.”

Backbench shenanigans are not ideal, Turnbull says, but nor are they what Beijing is really listening to. “You know, obviously we’ve got to conduct ourselves with a degree of subtlety and diplomacy et cetera,” Turnbull says. “The backbenchers and so forth carrying on, I mean, that doesn’t make a big difference. The statements the Chinese Communist Party focus on are above all the prime minister and the Foreign minister in particular. They are focused on leadership.

“But again, language should always be respectful. You can be firm but respectful. There is no point getting into gratuitous sledging or belligerent rhetoric. Leave that to others.”

Rudd takes a firmer line and says the embrace of the far right in Australia is overheating what should be a rational foreign policy debate.

“Almost uniquely in Australia, the core problem has been the predisposition of Mr Morrison and his senior ministers to routinely take out the megaphone in their response to Beijing, in large part to feed raw meat to their far-right domestic political base,” he says.

In John Howard’s assessment, China is going through something like growing pains. In an interview last November, the former prime minister said we should “wake up to the fact that China is doing what all emerging powers do and that is throwing its weight around”.

“It is doing that at the moment,” Howard said, “but you just have to understand that and we shouldn’t overreact to it but we might have to get used to living with that sort of thing for some time.”

That same month, Howard told the University of Melbourne’s Asialink Milestones podcast that he had told Scott Morrison to get to Beijing and have a face-to-face meeting with Xi Jinping as soon as possible. He had done the same as an icebreaker in 1996 with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin, after a chill set in between the two nations.

“You have got to have a good personal relationship. And the key to our relationship is to accept that [with] a country of Australia’s size and everything, what matters to the Chinese is the relationship between our head of government and their head of government,” Howard said. “… He [Morrison] understands that.”

Of course, such a meeting might be a problem. More than a week ago, Trade Minister Dan Tehan wrote a “very detailed letter” to his new counterpart in China, Wang Wentao, hoping to break the impasse. As of late this week, no response has been forthcoming.

While some wonks in foreign affairs say they observe a ratcheting-down in hostility from Beijing, this is a minority view. Others, including Curran and McGregor, predict the trade war at least will last the rest of this year. Perhaps even longer.

“China is treating Australia a little bit like a tethered goat," Curran says. "Where can Australia go? They are saying to the region, ‘We are going to make an example of Australia and here’s what happens to you if you get too close to the Americans.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "Exclusive: Scott Morrison misrepresents China advice".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.