Chaotic start to 2023 for our China strategy

(l-r) Australian Army Nursing Officer Lieutenant Samantha Dowdney and Able Seaman Boatswains Mate Patrick Jones at the Vaccination Outreach Clinic at Lightning Ridge, New South Wales. Source: Defence Images at

Written by

Peter Jennings

The first week of the new year presented the Albanese government with a tangled policy problem: managing China and Covid-19; an outgoing missile from Kevin Rudd directed at Washington; and the sudden announcement of missile purchases for the Australian Defence Force.

How these strands mesh together shows the difficulties of dealing with the new fabric of national security and a trend towards less discipline in policymaking. This is not an artefact of the Albanese government. The trend over decades is away from cabinet decision-making and towards a more off-the-cuff style of leader-led policy extemporising, with details to be backfilled by the public service.

Think of Kevin Rudd doubling the planned size of the submarine fleet in 2009, Tony Abbott shirt-fronting Vladimir Putin, Malcolm Turnbull’s on-again off-again tax reforms, and Scott Morrison’s French disconnection, AUKUS innovation and submarine nuclear propulsion.

Done well, rapid political innovation can be exhilarating, if a little scary. Done badly, surfing the policy vibe can lead to botched outcomes, a confused public and puzzled international partners.

So, to the start of 2023, and China’s dramatic policy reversal on Covid ending harsh long-term lockdowns of hundreds of millions of Chinese, abandoning testing and systematic tracing, and opening international travel.

No one predicted Beijing would end its lockdown so dramatically – Xi Jinping is not known for policy reversals. But the consequences were easier to anticipate. China’s health system is not prepared for mass infections. Older people have been inadequately vaccinated and herd immunity is not established across the population.

Consequently, China is experiencing a tsunami of tens of millions of Covid infections. How would Australia deal with the possibility of large numbers of Covid-infected arrivals from China with travel restrictions to be lifted on January 8? Anthony Albanese’s answer on December 29 initially indicated that no new measures would be taken

“We’ll continue to monitor the situation there … and we’ll respond in accordance with health advice. But at this point … there has been no change to the travel advice between China and Australia,” he said.

The Prime Minister emphasised “we will co-operate with China where we can, we will disagree where we must and we will engage in our national interest”. Co-operation was the priority.

It was left to Health Minister Mark Butler to make the national interest case for requiring travellers from China to provide proof of a negative Covid test before boarding a flight to Australia.

Butler stressed last Sunday that this approach was based on “an abundance of caution” but it was not the advice he had received from chief medical officer Paul Kelly, “that the resumption of travel between China and Australia poses no immediate p lic health threat to Australians”.

By Monday, the Australian had obtained a copy of Kelly’s December 31 advice: “I do not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale to impose any restriction or additional requirements on travellers from China.”

Moreover, Kelly insisted that if the government were to implement travel restrictions, that “would be inconsistent with the current national approach to the management of Covid-19”.

Kelly’s letter is remarkable in three ways: first, that the advice of a senior official to government should be released at all; second, that it is not classified – recalling that most such advice during Australia’s own lockdowns has not been released.

A third surprise is that Kelly is so definitive in his judgment, “based on available information” even while he acknowledges “the limited information being published by China”.

Governments often issue advice that supports a policy. This is the first time I have seen a government release advice contradicting a just-announced initiative.

Goodness knows what happened here. Ministers unwisely commission policy advice from officials without having some expectation about what they will be told. Nor do officials ever have carte blanche to offer unfiltered opinion – they are there to support the government.

A source subsequently briefed The Australian Financial Review that Australia became involved in “a co-ordinated international campaign to pressure China to share more real-time pandemic data”. This reportedly influenced a decision not to follow Kelly’s advice.

Surely, Australia’s chief medical officer would have known of this global effort? The AFR’s source would be more persuasive had contrarian New Zealand opted to be part of this international campaign. Surely we would have checked in with Wellington?

Governments often claim they follow medical, or defence or other specialist advice. In reality, sometimes advice to government is high quality and worth following. On other occasions, advice can be too narrow, too technocratic, perhaps even too self-interested.

The need at all times is that governments make decisions. That is what we elect non-subject matter experts as politicians to do, taking account as best they can of all the relevant circumstances.

Albanese and Butler are absolutely right in requiring proof of a negative Covid test before travel for visitors coming from China. Kelly’s advice seems to me to be too definitive about the consequences of a situation in China being deliberately kept opaque by Beijing. A cautious response informed with testing and verification is the sensible response taken by many developed democracies (other than New Zealand).

There is nothing wrong with governments discounting official advice from time to time, and indeed this is exactly how ministers and prime ministers approach their jobs. In or out of the cabinet, there is limited hushed reverence for officials and their thoughts.

The prize for the most striking contribution to this debate must surely go to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton: “The last thing our country needs is a panicked response from a government that doesn’t have a plan and, frankly, over the last week, has been making it up as they go along.” To think we should ever get that from Canberra!

The end of the first week in January brought the announcement of a $1bn acquisition from the US of the HIMARS rocket-launcher system – “the greatest enhancement to the army’s strike capability in living memory”, according to Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy.

Why was this bipartisan plan not left to be announced by Defence Minister Richard Marles as part of the March 2023 response to the Defence Strategic Review? That is puzzling, but it is a welcome announcement that starts to redesign the ADF into the more mobile, harder-hitting, longer-range force demanded by our strategic outlook.

Is it possible the timing of the HIMARS announcement was aimed at reducing attention on comments from Rudd, ambassador-designate to Washington? Rudd said the US was throwing its “allies under a bus” by failing to develop an economic alternative to dependence on Beijing, without which “this bird doesn’t take off”.

On policy substance Rudd’s critique is right but he probably should not be saying as much given his imminent role. If Rudd is not to overshadow the strategic policy limelight from Albanese, then the Prime Minister needs to give serious attention to setting out a national security framework.

Australia has not had a national security strategy since January 2013. Having released an overly optimistic Australia in the Asian Century white paper in 2012, Julia Gillard delivered a national security statement claiming Australia had a “positive” and “benign” security outlook.

The statemen’s key judgments were wrong then and they are even more inaccurate now. It’s time to rethink our approach. The bumper sticker of aiming for a stabilised relationship with China does not explain why Australia is building its military capabilities, what we need to do with the US and what we should be doing separately in the region.

We need some signals from government to clarify why a return to business as usual with Beijing is not in the national interest. As uncomfortable as it is, it is inevitable that disagreeing with China will dominate policymaking in the future.

This article was published in the Australian 07 January 2023