The deterioration in relations between Beijing and Canberra now appears to be affecting even the most China-friendly voices in Australia, with trips to the country organised by Bob Carr’s Australia-China Relations Institute allegedly being hindered by punitive visa rejections.
Mr Carr, director of the institute, revealed the Chinese government has denied visas to about five Australian journalists for a trip funded by his think tank, a hindrance the former Labor foreign minister said he has not faced before.
“I’m very disappointed that, on this occasion, for the first occasion, we weren’t able to get a visa and, as I put on Thursday night to his excellency the Chinese ambassador, if the delay in getting the approval was part of a freeze in the relationship, then I’d have to accept that I guess,” Mr Carr told ABC radio on Tuesday morning.
“But if it were a bureaucratic challenge… I said I’d like him to sort it out. But it has turned out to be more than a bureaucratic challenge.”
The institute, based at University of Technology Sydney, was established with a $1.8 million donation from Huang Xiangmo, a businessman with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the subject of various revelations in Australia’s debate around alleged foreign interference and influence. The think tank is also sustained with funding from Australian and Chinese corporations.
Fairfax Media revealed last week that Mr Carr has been arranging for Labor senators to quiz government officials about John Garnaut, formerly a key adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on China policy, in Senate estimates hearings.
On Tuesday, Mr Carr linked the think tank’s visa woes to similar issues faced by Australian government ministers and officials seeking to go to China and meet with counterparts.
Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said last week that the Chinese government recently turned down a meeting with Trade Minister Steven Ciobo when he visited China. A major business showcase event, Australia Week in China, is also in peril and Australian exports of beef and wine to China have faced increased barriers.
Mr Carr said bilateral relations were “probably in a more serious state of deterioration” than at other tense moments in recent history, including under former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009 and former Liberal prime minister John Howard in 1996.
“We’ve drifted with a different rhetoric on China since early 2017, well in advance of the anti-espionage, anti-influence legislation which was announced in December 2017. And currently, we’re the American ally with the most adversarial rhetorical position towards China,” Mr Carr said.
The Australian government has joined other nations in criticising China’s ongoing militarisation of islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, which China has persisted with in defiance of an international ruling by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.
Tensions have deepened further amid Australia’s debate over Chinese Communist Party-linked interference in domestic politics and the government’s introduction of laws to combat foreign espionage and influence.
Mr Carr and Beijing-based businessman Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China, have also pointed to a March 2017 speech by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in which she said China could only reach its potential if it embraced democracy.
The United States is now set to follow the Turnbull government’s example on foreign interference, introducing tough new laws and boosting co-operation with Australia.