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As Scott Morrison tries to leverage personal support on the back of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, his tough-guy rhetoric reflects a similar about-face in his dealings with China. By Mike Seccombe.

Scott Morrison’s tough-guy rhetoric on China

Scott Morrison gives a virtual address at the Lowy Institute earlier this week.
Scott Morrison gives a virtual address at the Lowy Institute earlier this week.
Credit: Lowy Institute

The picture Scott Morrison painted in his speech to the Lowy Institute this week was a frightening one.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said, was not just an assault on that country but evidence of a broader assault on the “rules-based international order, built upon the principles and values that guide our own nation, [which] has for decades supported peace and stability, and allowed sovereign nations to pursue their interests free from coercion”.

Russia’s actions and China’s apparent foreknowledge of them, he said, “was quite chilling”.

“A new arc of autocracy is instinctively aligning to challenge and reset the world order in their own image,” he said.

“We face the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency, where state sovereignty, territorial integrity and liberty are surrendered for respite from coercion and intimidation, or economic entrapment dressed up as economic reward ...

“As prime minister, I have been warning about this for years.”

It is that last sentence that Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia–China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, quibbles with.

“Compete rubbish,” he says. “I just don’t buy that, because you’ve got numerous quotes from Morrison, not so long ago, saying stuff that is the polar opposite of what he’s saying now.”

Laurenceson points to a joint media conference Morrison held with former United States president Donald Trump in the Oval Office on September 20, 2019.

Trump used the occasion to call China “a threat to the world” and challenged Morrison to express his own “very strong opinions” on China. Morrison did not. “We have a comprehensive, strategic partnership with China,” he said. “We work well with China.”

Morrison went on to talk in generalities about the need to ensure all countries played by the same rules but emphasised again: “We have a great relationship with China. China’s growth has been great for Australia.”

This was not an isolated instance. There are many instances where Morrison has talked an entirely different book on China, Laurenceson says. “I’ve got quotes from Morrison right into 2020, saying, ‘I’m determined not to let differences in the China relationship overtake the entire relationship’, saying, ‘I reject viewing the world in binary terms and seeing China’s rise as some ideological challenge.’ But this is precisely what he’s doing now. And just 18 months ago, he wasn’t talking like that.”

Morrison’s response to the Ukraine invasion, says Laurenceson, is an extension of this recent shift in rhetoric. “The Australian government’s rhetoric towards China is far more intense than that of any other Western capital that I’ve come across,” he says.

Other foreign policy experts note the same radical shift.

“Strident”, is how Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, describes Morrison’s recent rhetoric in relation to China. “Over the top.”

“Morrison seems to be dialling up the ideological divisions. I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says.

McGregor notes that even as the Biden administration in the US has pressed China to take a constructive role in relation to the invasion of Ukraine, it has concluded the best way to do that “is not to talk loudly about them in public”.

Likewise Hugh White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, worries that Morrison has, for the sake of domestic politics, been overly eager “to use a blue with China to present his own credentials as a strong national security prime minister”.

This narrative, constructed by Morrison and some in the media over the past year or so, “involves a lot of, so to speak, creative amnesia”.

Says White: “I think we may well have got to the point where Morrison does now kind of regard this as part of his political personality. You know, one of the things about politicians, they do start to believe their own bullshit.”

These experts are each appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerned by China’s refusal to condemn it. Their problem is that the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of this government is unnecessarily provocative and damaging to Australia’s relationship with its biggest trading partner.

“Morrison’s behaviour,” says John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, “is the inverse of the Teddy Roosevelt axiom that you should speak softly and carry a big stick … We’ve had a slightly cavalier approach to post-Cold War spending on defence that has been fairly wasteful and slow and pandering to inefficient processes and lobby groups. That’s left us spending a lot of money and not getting enough bang for the buck.”

Over the past couple of years, of course, the Morrison government has promised to spend billions more to acquire a bigger stick. In the 2020 budget it committed to spending more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence, the greatest proportion in 15 years.

Spending is now about 2.2 per cent, and recent announcements, including nuclear submarines and other hardware, would push it past 2.5 per cent, according to Defence Minister Peter Dutton – a level not seen since the end of the Cold War more than three decades ago.

Labor, too, has committed to increased spending, although with slightly different priorities. Inevitably, there is debate about value for money.

But this story is not going to canvass that debate. It is about the devolution of Australia’s – and particularly this government’s – relationship with China.

Any such analysis, suggests Blaxland, has to start in 2012, with the ascension of Xi Jinping to the Chinese leadership.

“Really, from 2012 onwards, we see a darkening picture coming from China. Under Xi Jinping, power is centralised, the state becomes more authoritarian. And then you’ve got an exponential growth in military capabilities in China … of the army, navy, air force, missile force, cyber force, space force. This is gargantuan. We’re now at a stage where it’s not at all certain that in a stoush America would win. In fact, there’s a high chance they would lose. This is gravely unsettling.”

The geopolitical situation now is radically different, says White, “from the old days when political leaders used to say, ‘We don’t have to choose between America and China’, and John Howard used to say, ‘Let’s focus on what unites us not what divides us’ and ‘We don’t have to choose between our history and our geography.’

“That complacency was based, essentially, on an assumption that China wouldn’t really challenge or if they did challenge it wouldn’t be serious because they couldn’t possibly confront the United States. And if we engaged with them, they would become more like us, and if they were more like us, they would like us more.”

This “naive and optimistic assumption lasted a lot longer than it should have”.

The agreement of a free-trade deal in late 2014 may be seen as the apotheosis of that rosy view. In a statement marking the conclusion of negotiations, Australia’s then ambassador to China, Frances Adamson, announced an agreement “that our bilateral relationship could now be described as a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, signifying the way in which our ties are growing closer and stronger over time”.

Three years later, even as tensions over trade emerged, then treasurer Morrison continued to celebrate the free-trade agreement as a singular achievement of the Coalition government, something Labor could never have pulled off.

“I mean, this is an extraordinary agreement, an agreement frankly that our opponents had given up on in government and really hadn’t made any progress on,” Morrison boasted in September 2017.

According to White, about this time others in the government, notably then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop, began to first articulate “strategic anxiety” about China.

“They started moving away from that ‘We don’t have to choose’ line,” White says.

What ensued was “a kind of panic” about Chinese influence in Australia, fed by an unfortunate conjunction of events, among them the Sam Dastyari affair and some hard calls relating to proposed Chinese investment in Australia, notably Huawei’s provision of 5G communications and a bid to buy some major electricity transmission assets.

The threat was not imagined, but nor was it handled discreetly.

The experts point to a number of factors that influenced Australia’s harder line on China: nervousness in defence and security circles over the commitment of the Trump administration to traditional alliances, and internal Coalition politics, which saw the right wing of the party adopt some of Donald Trump’s anti-China attitude.

Interestingly, says White, after Turnbull was rolled by his party, Morrison initially soft-pedalled the China issue. “I was very struck he was being less negative about the Chinese,” White says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. He’s listening to DFAT.’ ”

We can be quite precise about when this softer period ended: March and April 2020. “After a very bad summer, with ‘I don’t hold a hose’ and all of that, suddenly, more or less out of nowhere, we have the proposal for an inquiry by the World Health Organization into the origins of the pandemic,” White says. “That spun out of control pretty quickly. And once the Chinese took offence and started hitting back, then it was impossible for the government to back down.”

Morrison and his hawkish Defence minister, Peter Dutton, who is worryingly willing to talk publicly about war with China, offer the excuse that numerous other nations have problems with the new, aggressive China.

“And that’s true,” says James Laurenceson. “With India, there’s a land border dispute where soldiers have died. In the case of Japan, there’s territorial issues, as with other countries, in South-East Asia around the South China Sea. Yet they still maintain ministerial and senior political dialogue. And that trade is proceeding uninterrupted. We are the only country in the region where political-level dialogue has completely broken down. The last time there was a single meeting between an Australian minister and a Chinese counterpart was in November 2019.”

And Morrison’s strong language, says Richard McGregor, risks further offending not only the Chinese but also other nations. “This idea that it’s liberal democracies versus the rest is obvious nonsense,” he says, citing the example of Vietnam, a country with which we have a close relationship, which has an antagonistic relationship with China, but which is a communist state. “They don’t share values with us, but they share interests with us.”

Morrison continues to ramp up the rhetoric with his apocalyptic warnings about China and attacks on Labor for supposedly being too soft on China. “I think,” says Laurenceson, “Morrison feels that this is a winning domestic political strategy.”

Recent polling, however, has found a majority of voters see China and the bilateral relationship as a complex issue to be managed rather than a threat to be confronted. More voters trust Labor than the Coalition to do this.

“This is an important thing,” Blaxland says. “No one is expecting a substantive shift in the Australian policy framework but a rhetorical one is screaming to be implemented. It’s not about compromising our values. It’s about making the relationship work without use of a megaphone.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Bull and a China strop".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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