Australia's shifting language on China and the blame game over who's changed
Fortnight of 20 June to 3 July 2022
Reframing coercion concerns
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking to Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 on 23 June:
“China has sanctions against Australia that should be removed … it is China that has changed, and China needs to remove the sanctions.”
From the South China Sea to Hong Kong and much besides, there’s broad continuity between the previous and current Australian governments on substantive China policy. Consistent with this general bipartisanship, Minister for Defence Richard Marles was on 1 July quick to definitively reject the prospect of “any type of concession to reset” Australia-China relations: “No. Absolutely not.” But despite this bipartisan policy consensus, Australia’s diplomatic messaging on China continues to evolve. The Morrison government pursued a longstanding, determined, and explicit strategy of naming and shaming China by unilaterally, bilaterally, and multilaterally raising concerns about economic coercion. In a noteworthy shift, “economic coercion” is a label that has (so far) been largely absent from the new Australian government’s diplomatic vocabulary when talking about China (or any other country, for that matter).
It’s especially conspicuous that the new government has avoided references to economic coercion even when speaking about “trade and investment” and the case for “disputes among states [to be] resolved via dialogue, and in accordance with international law”. Economic coercion equally didn’t get a mention in the Joint Statement between Australian and Spanish leaders, despite an emphasis on the rules-based global trading system. (It’s critical to caveat this last datapoint by noting that the previous government never issued [so far as I’m aware] a leader-level joint statement with Spain, so a direct point of comparison isn’t available. Still, economic coercion featured in joint statements with other European likemindeds, such as the United Kingdom and France.)
To be sure, economic coercion was mentioned in the Quad Joint Leaders’ Statement with a reaffirmation of collective “resolve to uphold the international rules-based order where countries are free from all forms of military, economic and political coercion.” But it was absent from the Prime Minister’s opening remarks at the Quad Leaders’ meeting. And, so far as I can see, the term hasn’t appeared in remarks, speeches or press releases from either the Prime Minister or his foreign, trade, and defence minsters. As I wrote last month, this comes as references to economic coercion were absent from press releases about the new Minister for Trade and Tourism Don Farrell’s meetings with US and Indian and EU trade/commerce ministers.
Beyond obvious changes like eschewing comparisons with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, we are perhaps now getting a clearer sense of the new government’s rhetorical shift on China. It seems plausible that winding back the use of terms like economic coercion is part of the pledge to purse what Minister for Defence Marles described as a “change of tone”, which would avoid “chest beating”. Given that the old label of economic coercion is more emotive and rhetorically charged than the new preferred nomenclature of sanctions, we seem to be seeing tangible evidence of the government’s more sotto voce approach to China diplomacy. Such an interpretation fits with the new government repeatedly saying that it would shift its China messaging. This includes Prime Minister Albanese’s statement the Monday after the federal election: “You will not get the call earlier because you yell.”
Will such linguistic tweaks change the dynamic of Australia-China relations? This rhetorical movement has presumably been noticed and welcomed in Beijing. Although there’s admittedly no definitive evidence for this (at least not publicly), it’s reasonable to imagine that the Chinese government would prefer to be criticised for using sanctions as opposed to being accused of economically coercing another country. Especially considering that sanctions are often considered legal and legitimate, whereas coercion by its nature is typically considered much more nefarious and unjustified. Although speculative, it is intriguing that Canberra’s decision to drop the economic coercion language has coincided with a perceptible softening of Beijing’s own language on its trade restrictions against Australia.
Previously, the Chinese government was comfortable articulating the coercive intent behind its trade restrictions. As Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated on 6 July 2021: “We will not allow any country to reap benefits from doing business with China while groundlessly accusing and smearing China and undermining China’s core interests based on ideology. When a certain country acts as a cat’s paw for others, it is the people that pay for misguided government policies.” By contrast, it now appears that Beijing is back in the business of denying that the trade restrictions are coercive. As MFA spokesperson Wang Wenbin insisted on 22 June: “What I would like to tell you is that the measures China has taken on imported foreign goods are strictly consistent with Chinese laws and regulations and WTO rules with a view to protecting the legitimate rights and interests of relevant industries in China and the safety of our consumers. The measures are legitimate, lawful and beyond reproach.” As with other recent statements, China seems to be again seeking to create grounds for plausible deniability regarding the coercive nature of its trade restrictions.
Are Beijing’s efforts to downplay and even deny the coercive intent behind the trade restrictions a direct response to Canberra dropping the language of economic coercion? Not necessarily. This shift in Beijing’s messaging could be a subset of the general warming of the way that China talks about Australia rather than being directly prompted by Canberra opting to describe Chinese trade restrictions as sanctions. Beyond the causal question, there’s also (so far) little grounds for thinking that the softer words on both sides will necessarily see trade restrictions dismantled any time soon. Still, this concurrent dialling down of rhetoric raises the possibility that we’re witnessing a diplomatic quid pro quo unfold that allows both Canberra and Beijing to concurrently take less adversarial positions. That said, there’s always the possibility that I’m overanalysing these linguistic tweaks.
Australian-grown olive branches
Minister for Trade and Tourism Farrell speaking to Jonathan Green on ABC Radio National on 30 June:
“I’ve continued to hold out the olive branch, I’ve continued to say, ‘Look, we’ll meet with you, and we’ll try and sort these problems out.’ There’s been no indication from the Chinese that at some future point in time that that won’t happen.”
This is the latest in a series of interviews in which the Minister for Trade and Tourism has emphasised that reengaging with his Chinese counterpart is a key priority. Even more so than his Prime Minister and his foreign affairs and defence portfolio colleagues, the new Minister for Trade and Tourism has adopted an upbeat tone on the importance of reengaging with China. Although making plain that “national security is our number one priority,” he’s placed a premium on reviving relations with China. As he said on 28 June: “My objective into the future is to, as best I can, try and re-establish that relationship with the Chinese, get them to understand our point of view.” He’s even raised the prospect of a reset in the relationship, saying on 21 June: “I think the change of government gives us an opportunity to reset the long-term arrangements with the Chinese.” Given the stingingly sour state of bilateral ties for the last two-plus years, this is a remarkably optimistic assessment from an Australian minister.
On one level though, such a sanguine view is likely to be at least partly a function of the Minister’s portfolio. Not only have Australia’s exporters suffered some of the toughest fallout from the decline in bilateral ties, but trade is likely to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of a normalisation of the Australia-China relationship. So, there’s a clear rationale for the relevant minister to be especially forward-leaning on the issue of relationship repair. Moreover, even during the previous government’s tenure when critical rhetoric about China was flying thick and fast, then Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan opted for much more cautious language. In a landmark speech on Australia’s economic statecraft in September 2021 he said: “Patience has been essential in our dealings with our largest trading partner, China. When I became Trade Minister, I wrote to my Chinese counterpart in January setting out how we can work more closely together.”
As with last year though, there’s still a strong case for moderating expectations for bilateral ties in 2022. Notwithstanding the proliferation of olive branches from the Australian Minister for Trade and Tourism, the Chinese Ambassador to Australia’s recent and widely reported speech puts in stark relief the sheer scale of the barriers to a sustained improvement in bilateral relations. As with his other interventions, Ambassador Xiao Qian offered up optimism as he spoke on 24 June at the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute (UTS ACRI). Yet even with upbeat references to getting “our bilateral relationship back on the right track of development at an early date,” the Ambassador’s “five major areas where it is important for China and Australia to make joint efforts” point to some serious structural challenges.
Many of the intense and longstanding points of policy disagreement between Beijing and Canberra flow from the five areas for joint effort outlined by the Ambassador. But even just focussing on the first area alone highlights the scale of the challenge. According to Ambassador Xiao: “Respect for each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, political system and development mode, these are the basic principles for sound and healthy relations between two sovereign states.” But whether the question is systematic human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities in China, the erosion and abrogation of political rights and freedoms in Hong Kong or China’s maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea, it’s easy to see how deeply Canberra and Beijing are divided on even the first of Ambassador Xiao’s five points.
Given Canberra’s commitment to speaking out on human rights abuses, Hong Kong, legally untenable maritime claims, and many other critical policy and political questions, it’s nearly inevitable that the Australian government will fall well short of what the Chinese government would consider to be respect for its “sovereignty, territorial integrity, political system and development mode”. These and other similar deep disagreements mean that Australia and China won’t be able to agree on how to operationalise Ambassador Xiao’s “five major areas where it is important for China and Australia to make joint efforts.” To be sure, none of this is to say that there aren’t other specific things that Canberra and Beijing can do to further improve ties (TBC but I’ll hopefully write a short piece elsewhere on this practical question in the next week or so). But it is to say that the structural barriers to a significant improvement in the Australia-China relationship are much more monumental than either Ambassador Xiao’s or Minister Farrell’s remarks might suggest.
It’s not me, it’s you
Ambassador Xiao speaking at UTS ACRI on 24 July:
“The recent years our relationship has been a difficult period, nonetheless, China’s policy of friendship towards Australia remains unchanged.”
If my above assessment of the long-term trajectory of Australia-China relations wasn’t gloomy enough, there’s another point of disagreement to add to the mix. Despite the warming diplomatic rhetoric between Beijing and Canberra, neither side can agree on who’s changed and therefore who’s responsible for the last couple of years of intensely strained ties. In contrast to the Chinese Ambassador’s insistence that China’s approach to Australia remains the same, the Australian Prime Minister and his ministers are equally adamant that Beijing has been the disruptive force. Just a couple of days after Australia’s federal election, the Prime Minister stated his position plainly: “It is China that has changed, not Australia.” This accusation has since become one of Prime Minister Albanese’s preferred refrains on China (for example, here, here, and here).
The simple fact that Canberra and Beijing can’t agree on who upset the previous status quo doesn’t mean that relations can’t improve. It’s entirely possible that each government could continue blaming the other, all the while working to improve ties in practical ways. Indeed, it’s plausible to interpret these assessments about who’s changed as being aimed as much at their respective domestic publics and governments as the other side. In other words, insisting on one’s own consistency and blaming the other side for changing could serve a range of domestic political and ideological purposes. Moreover, presumably neither Canberra nor Beijing truly believes that they haven’t changed their approach to the other side, especially considering the many dramatic policy and political shifts pursued by both the Chinese and Australian governments in recent years. These caveats aside, it’s equally hard to imagine that this underlying disagreement over who’s changed won’t add yet another wrinkle to the Australia-China relationship.
As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections very much appreciated.