The US embassy has accused Chinese diplomats in Australia of foreign interference after they handed a list of grievances to the media and told the Morrison government to back down on key policies.
US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse jnr on Wednesday said the list of 14 disputes across the diplomatic, business, media, defence and national security sectors showed Australia stood up for its own interests.
His remarks come as Australia and China have issued respectful statements about each other, which could offer a break from months of hostilities.
Last week, Chinese embassy officials delivered the list of grievances to Nine News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Canberra and warned it was up to the government to fix its policies on Huawei and the South China Sea, turn off funding for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and stop unfriendly media coverage.
The list came to the attention of the White House National Security Committee within hours of it being published.
“You would never see a United States embassy hand such a list to a reporter in Australia,” Culvahouse said.
“That is not the way to do diplomacy and it’s not the way that one should deal with concerns, it should be done government to government. That sort of interference I don’t think you would see in the United States.”
The Wall St Journal reported on Tuesday that the White House was using the dossier as an “affirmative list” of what other countries should be doing on China policy. The US embassy in Canberra did not confirm or deny the report.
Culvahouse, a Republican who was appointed by US President Donald Trump, also confirmed for the first time he would be leaving the role in January. He said he was a “political appointment” and it was standard practice that he would not stay in the role under a new administration.
In a speech earlier this week to British think tank Policy Exchange, Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought to distinguish Canberra’s foreign policy from Washington’s after China repeatedly accused Australia of being a “deputy sheriff” for the United States following its calls for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
“Our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States,” Morrison said.
“It’s as if Australia does not have its own unique interests or its own views as an independent sovereign state. This is just false. And worse it needlessly deteriorates relationships.”
The Prime Minister said that China’s economic prosperity was a good thing for the global economy. “It is good for Australia. And, of course, it’s certainly good for the Chinese people.”
These comments were welcomed by China’s foreign ministry in remarks that contrasted with the insults directed at Australia and other Five Eyes nations last week.
“China noticed Prime Minister Morrison’s positive comments on the global influence of China’s economic growth and China’s poverty alleviation efforts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday night.
“China is committed to peaceful development and friendly co-operation with other countries based on mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.”
China on Wednesday claimed it had eliminated extreme poverty after the final nine counties were removed from its list of poorest regions. The milestone, a key goal of President Xi Jinping, is based on workers earning more than $2 a day, according to China’s own metrics. The World Bank maintains the poverty rate is closer to $2.50 a day.
Despite the economic growth – fuelled partly by Australian resources – the relationship between Beijing and Canberra has been clouded by more than two years of hostility.
The list noted as particular grievances the Turnbull government’s decision to ban Huawei from the 5G network in 2018 and calls for an independent investigation into the coronavirus in April.
Perceived olive branches in August and October from deputy ambassador Wang Xining and former ambassador Fu Ying were swallowed within weeks by trade strikes on half-a-dozen Australian industries.
The Morrison government does not intend to address China’s 14 grievances, leaving the nation’s dispute unresolved, despite the warmer economic rhetoric in the past fortnight from Mr Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
By Eryk Bagshaw, Anthony Galloway and Jonathan Kearsley