Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
PM looks rattled as he feeds the trolls

Upon mature reflection, it is increasingly looking as though Scott Morrison’s angry reaction to a “truly repugnant” social media attack from a Chinese government official has only deepened the crisis in the relationship between the two nations.

The Photoshopped image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child, posted on the Twitter account of a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, was always intended to offend. But even its author, the ministry’s deputy director-general, Zhao Lijian, must have been surprised at who responded and how vehemently.

Not that Zhao is new to the trade of trolling on Twitter in his role as “Wolf Warrior” diplomat in chief. This is increasingly China’s modus operandi as its assertiveness on the world stage becomes more aggressive. And its mouthpieces in Beijing gain brownie points for reaching a worldwide audience with a message: China has arrived and is not to be messed with.

No sooner had the tweet appeared than Prime Minister Morrison called a news conference to say that “the Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post”. What clearly triggered his anger was a “terrible slur on our great defence forces” made worse by a false image. Labor leader Anthony Albanese was quick to agree. He told parliament the image was “gratuitous, inflammatory and deeply offensive” to those who served in the Australian Defence Force.

Morrison demanded an apology and for Twitter to take down the post. Neither eventuated. Beijing in fact doubled down, accusing Australia of hypocrisy. The Chinese embassy in Canberra released a statement after its ambassador had been carpeted by the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson.

The embassy accused Morrison of attempting to “stoke domestic nationalism” with his enraged response. It dismissed the “rage and roar” of some politicians and media as a “misreading of and overreaction to” the Zhao tweet. And it said the charges against him were to “deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities by certain Australian soldiers … [and] to blame China for the worsening of bilateral ties”.

In lashing out, Morrison broke one of the cardinal rules of social media. As one political strategist says, he always advises politicians “not to feed the trolls”. It is best not to bite because you only magnify their message and give them the attention they were looking for in the first place.

Indeed, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that Morrison wasn’t responding to his counterpart but to a Chinese government mouthpiece. The asymmetry added to the appearance of the Australian leader looking weak and rattled, especially as the angry prime minister also made a plea for tensions to be addressed in a “mature way”. He begged for engagement at the “leader and ministerial level” to ensure tensions in the relationship can be resolved.

In practice, Morrison elevated the slur to the top level. The tweet would have been better dismissed by him as a pathetic stunt from a spin doctor. Perhaps what stung was that Zhao accompanied the false image with a statement our government and military had to agree with: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, and call for holding them accountable.” Indeed, page 120 of the Brereton report into the alleged war crimes notes that Australian troops are accused of slitting the throats of Afghan children they suspected of being linked to the Taliban.

There were indications on Tuesday that the prime minister had second thoughts about his reaction. As he addressed the party room, the video link from The Lodge, where he was in Covid-19 isolation, broke down. On the phone, Morrison urged his colleagues to show restraint. He said the government’s response to the tweet is clear and that it doesn’t “need any further amplification”. “Our work,” he admitted, “is focusing on establishing dialogue that allows us to steadily work through issues as governments.”

China no doubt will be watching closely how seriously Australia goes about responding to the Brereton report. The early signs are not encouraging. The prime minister and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have blocked Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell’s plan to immediately revoke military honours for 3000 special forces troops.

Campbell announced the revocation on the day the government left him to respond on his own to the shocking findings of credible evidence of war crimes perpetrated by Australian troops in Afghanistan. An organised backlash by special services veterans, backed by The Daily Telegraph, prompted the prime minister to overrule Campbell. The prime minister’s office did not respond to my query as to whether Campbell still had the prime minister’s confidence in the job.

Army veteran and independent senator Jacqui Lambie does not believe that Campbell knew nothing of the alleged atrocities. She says he has lost the confidence of the military under him. She is furious at his willingness to implement the stripping of the meritorious unit citation from Special Operations Task Groups.

This political interference flies in the face of the meticulous Brereton investigation, which was triggered by the work of military sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets. She told Guardian Australia the report clearly showed that deep and systemic cultural problems helped to create the environment for the alleged atrocities to occur and be covered up.

The Greens are calling for Campbell to resign because of a perceived conflict of interest. As the commander of Joint Task Force 633, Campbell was responsible for all Australian forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan for one of the years investigated by Justice Brereton. Greens senator Jordon Steele-John says Campbell’s resignation would give credibility to the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

The Brereton findings have certainly given China a weapon in its bullying of Australia. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd told ABC TV he had never seen our relationship with China at a lower ebb. He suspects Morrison got the “megaphone” out to impress the Murdoch media and make clear he was not an “appeaser of Beijing”.

Rudd says that it’s time “through high-level diplomacy … for both sides, Beijing and Canberra, to put the megaphone away and put the substantive disagreements back to where they belong, which is in the normal channels and processes of diplomacy”. But he also says China is pushing hard “because they have got more power”.

And that’s also the view of Emeritus Professor Hugh White, a former high-ranking Defence Department official and long-time China watcher. White says Morrison’s talk of a reset is misguided if he thinks there can be a return to the days of John Howard’s accommodation with China. White says the Chinese economy at the time was one-16th the size it is today; back then China was
10 per cent of the American economy, “now it’s overtaking America”.

White told Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast that China is a powerful country that can set the terms of the relationship, and that’s how things have changed. China is making the point, he says, that if we want access to the extraordinary economic opportunities it offers, then “we are going to have to be prepared to conduct ourselves on China’s terms, and it’s a choice for us to make as to how far we’re prepared to go along with that”. White fears that Morrison hasn’t been honest with Australians about this choice or doesn’t understand it himself.

But if the reaction to Morrison’s standing up to China is any guide, it will take some doing to bring public opinion around to the harsh realities of how economically dominant China has become for Australia and the rest of the world.

Channel Ten’s Facebook page, for one, was inundated with comments urging everything from boycotting Chinese-made products to cutting trading ties. Senator Lambie joined the chorus, asking what we have got to lose by standing up to China. She says the government should be looking to other markets because China is on a path to ending trade with us.

No doubt such remarks are superficially popular but they show a complete lack of appreciation of the economic realities. We would certainly be a much poorer place without China, a country that accounts for 35 per cent of our annual exports. Or, to put it another way, one in every three dollars Australia earns overseas comes from China. No wonder the premiers of the resource states – Queensland and Western Australia – are urging the federal government to work harder at repairing relations for the sake of thousands of jobs.

The big worry is what the future holds for Australia’s post-pandemic recovery. At his midweek news conference about the national accounts, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the deteriorating relationship was “very serious”. But he claimed domestic consumption would be the key driver of Australia’s economic recovery from Covid-19.

Economist Stephen Koukoulas says the end of the technical recession is welcome but the 3.3 per cent September economic growth figure still leaves Australia about 4 per cent behind where we were before the pandemic. Stagnating wages and about 2.4 million Australians unemployed or underemployed are certainly depressing.

But so too are the prospects of quickly repairing relations with our biggest overseas customer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Don’t feed the trolls".

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