On Thursday Scott Morrison walked out into the Prime Minister’s courtyard and waded into fraught territory.
He was unveiling Australia’s response to the Chinese Government’s crackdown on Hong Kong; particularly Beijing’s single-minded assault on the legal architecture that protects the liberties of those who live there.
Mr Morrison announced his Government would offer safe haven to many Hong Kong students and graduates already living in Australia.
Not only that, the Prime Minister declared Australia was suspending its extradition agreement with Hong Kong. Immediately.
In the eyes of Australia, these announcements were simply the inevitable consequence of China’s decision to break the promise it made to the United Kingdom decades ago, when it told the departing colonial power it would preserve the city’s liberties for half a century.
In the eyes of China, they were grave provocations.
But if the Prime Minister was trying to be provocative, it didn’t much look like it.
His answers were studiously cautious and measured. Journalists asked him if China’s crackdown endangered “One Country, Two Systems” — the principle that was meant to enshrine Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Mr Morrison’s eyes repeatedly darted down to the paper in front of him. He read the words in front of him very, very carefully.
Australia’s decision to suspend the extradition treaty “represents an acknowledgement of the fundamental change of circumstances in relation to Hong Kong,” Mr Morrison said, his gaze fixed to the page.
The new security law imposed on the city by Beijing “undermines the One Country, Two Systems framework, and Hong Kong’s own basic law and the high degree of autonomy guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration”.
In other words — yes.
But when you’re dealing with the Chinese Communist Party, language matters. Precision matters.
And when you’re dealing with Hong Kong — a locus of the post-colonial resentments that still pulse through Chinese political life, and a frontline in the contest between ascendant authoritarianism and waning liberalism — it pays to be particularly precise.
Are relations at ‘breaking point’?
Mr Morrison’s announcements were hardly radical. The risks within were precisely calibrated. Each decision was framed as an exercise of Australian sovereignty.
The push to take skilled migrants from Hong Kong was presented chiefly as a talent recruitment drive, not a mercy mission.
Unlike the United Kingdom, Australia did not offer refuge to Hong Kong residents actually living in the city right now.
Those who fear persecution and who might hope for a new life in Australia were effectively told they would have to join the queue.
Not that this helped to spare Australia public excoriation from the Chinese Government, which responded with predictable fury.
Australia was denounced from the podium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, while the Chinese Embassy in Canberra intoned that the Federal Government was “dropping a rock on its own feet”.
Chinese state media even declared the Morrison Government was pushing the relationship to “breaking point” with an editorial in the party mouthpiece the China Daily warning Australia was “not irreplaceable”.
It’s difficult to say how much of this sound and fury is concocted, and how much of it stems from a genuine sense of grievance. And there’s no real consensus in Canberra about what will happen next, just a great deal of uncertainty.
Some fear China is willing to make good on its threats. They predict Beijing will respond by steadily ramping up cyber incursions, while rapidly expanding its campaign of economic punishment against Australian exporters. Anxieties about “hostage diplomacy” linger.
But others in the bureaucracy and in Parliament House are becoming almost blasé about the stream of threats emanating from the Chinese Government. Bets are taken on which rococo insult will be included in the next angry missive from the embassy.
China, they argue, is already embroiled in a dizzying array of feuds with countries across the globe and is consumed by full-spectrum competition with the United States. It is feeling the pressure.
Turning away Aussie beef or wine is one thing, but would Beijing really pick this moment to turn its back on the vast rivers of high-quality Australian iron ore and coal that are still crucial to parts of its economy?
This may be a smart wager. Or it might be a terrible miscalculation.
Either way, Mr Morrison and his key lieutenants seem to have decided that there can be no backing down with China — particularly not now.
Perhaps they reason that weakness would only invite contempt, and likely more coercion. So they press on.
It is a high-wire act, and the stakes are immense.
No wonder the Prime Minister is treading carefully.
By Stephen Dziedzic