Here we are again with another China problem. This time it’s serious and needing a sophisticated, continuing, institutional response.
But first let’s pause to celebrate that in the past week our two national leaders, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, have both broadcast significant declarations of independence from the political influence of Beijing.
The Prime Minister delivered the keynote address at the annual Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore.
In a strong speech Turnbull called once more for continued US strategic leadership in the region. In the most trenchant elements of the speech he did not mention China by name. But he said: “We must preserve the rules-based structure … this means co-operation, not unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarise disputed areas. This means competing within the framework of international law, not winning through corruption, interference or coercion.”
These were obvious references to Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea and its influence peddling in the region. Turnbull warned that if China behaved coercively it would see Southeast Asian nations seeking ever closer contact with the Americans and combining to form defensive arrangements between themselves.
And he reminded Beijing, and indeed other policymakers and commentators, that there were other big cats in Asia, including the world’s third largest economy, Japan; and “a rising giant, India, destined to match China itself”; as well as Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation.
It is telling that Turnbull should make such a bold, and in my view entirely sound, assessment of India.
Turnbull was criticised in the more nationalist sections of the Chinese media — China doesn’t like leaders of other nations standing up to it.
All those antique commentators who regularly call for a more independent Australian foreign policy — as though the mere fact of the US alliance compromises our independence — should realise that there is only one country that tries seriously to intimidate Australia in its national decisions. And it is not the US.
Beijing’s role in seeking political and other influence in Australia has been the subject this week of some very useful investigative journalism from the ABC’s Four Corners and Fairfax Media.
In part, it revealed the names of two Chinese businessmen who give large amounts to political parties and which ASIO, in briefings to both major parties, said were extremely close to the Communist Party and could be assumed to be extremely sympathetic to Chinese policy, even if that policy contradicts Australia’s.
The Opposition Leader’s important declaration of independence came when he announced the Labor Party would no longer accept donations from either of these men, nor in general from anyone identified as acting on behalf of a foreign government. This is a good decision and the Turnbull government must surely follow suit.
It is our national good fortune that Turnbull and Shorten both are solid citizens on national security.
It follows on from the very good decision of the Labor Party, and substantial sections of the Liberal Party, to oppose ratification of an extradition treaty with China, such that ratification, for which Chinese diplomats lobbied prodigiously, was defeated and will not now be reintroduced. That was, if you like, a declaration of independence by our whole political culture.
No one in mainstream Australian politics is remotely anti-China. Everyone wants the best and most intimate engagement with China that is possible.
However, China provides us with significant policy problems like no other.
These problems are not a sign of any weakness or lack of sophistication on Australia’s part. Nor can they possibly be solved by any new grand policy document, white paper, green paper, little red book or bunyip collection of Delphic aphorisms to guide future policy in Canberra.
The problems arise instead from those aspects of Beijing’s behaviour that are coercive, illegal internationally, against commonly accepted international norms and that transgress our sovereignty. We need to bring together, conceptually and intellectually, the big signals we have received over the past few months.
First, there was the retirement speech at the National Press Club by outgoing Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson. Richardson is one of the toughest minded, most consequential, formidable and effective civil servants Australia has produced.
He chose his words with great care and told us inter alia that China was the author of the biggest espionage effort against Australia of any power today.
He said this was partly in the cyber area but went way beyond cyber. He alluded to the efforts China made to manipulate — for political ends — the diaspora here, especially students.
Meanwhile Duncan Lewis, the head of ASIO, in Senate estimates testimony told us that foreign espionage against Australia was at an unprecedented level and posed a real threat. Add Richardson to Lewis and you get a pretty disturbing picture. Then we add the Four Corners-Fairfax revelations.
Chinese figures, assessed by ASIO to be working hand in glove with the Chinese government, are offering massive donations to political parties and in one case at least allegedly tying a donation of several hundred thousand dollars to support for, or at least not rejecting, Beijing’s policy in the South China Sea.
As well, Chinese government-aligned companies are offering extraordinarily lucrative consultancies and business opportunities to former cabinet ministers and other Australian political leaders moments after they leave office.
Further, it is clear that Chinese diplomatic establishments are putting a huge effort into monitoring and actively manipulating Chinese students here. This is not just to prevent criticism but to get these students active in support of Beijing’s foreign policy in political campaigns here.
This recalls the naked intimidation the Chinese embassy in Canberra organised to counter potential pro-Tibet demonstrations in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. It also recalls the testimony of Chinese diplomatic defector Chen Yonglin that Beijing had 1000 agents on its payroll in Australia.
Many Australian universities are now heavily dependent financially on Chinese students and even on Chinese government grants for research institutes. There are reports of Chinese diplomats actively opposing universities co-operating with Taiwanese universities and showing interest in potential course content of which Beijing disapproves.
Beyond that, the Four Corners-Fairfax revelations also include clear political, financial and even security intimidation of that tiny element of the Chinese language press not already under the influence of Chinese agencies.
At the same time the government in Beijing has ruthlessly cracked down on all internal dissent and has increased political control of all companies, inserting committees of the Communist Party into almost every enterprise, greatly reducing therefore the distinction between private and public enterprise.
All countries try to promote a good image of themselves, but no country other than China engages in that by-no-means-exhaustive catalogue of activities.
How should we respond to all this?
The main response has nothing to do with our alliance with the US and everything to do with protecting our democracy. These things need to be sifted in a wide-ranging national conversation. Some of them demand a robust institutional response.
We can certainly be glad, in the interim, that we have a free press, a Senate estimates process and a brave, retiring mandarin of our own (pardon the lame pun).
By GREG SHERIDAN