Cracks in the ‘stabilised’ relationship exposed during Premier Li’s triumphal Australian visit

PM Albanese says we must not ‘manufacture confrontations’. That has an unfortunate whiff of pretending we have to manufacture confrontations with China rather than simply noticing the real ones.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

Premier Li’s triumphal visit to Australia was meant to mark another waypoint on the journey to a stabilised Australia-China relationship.  Instead, it shows a trajectory of intimidation and silencing of our government, along with a slow motion loss of self respect. Our government, from the prime minister down, is losing the ability to speak honestly either to Chinese counterparts or the Australian public. 

Instead of thinking they can change the direction of events, it looks very much like our government has given up and decided to manage decline as we adjust to doing what Beijing desires.  Premier Li and his boss Xi Jinping must be satisfied with how things are developing.

A low point in the stage managed Li tour happened in Canberra on Monday, in front of the prime minister in our Parliament House. A small number of journalists had been let in to witness Mr Albanese and Mr Li signing various documents and making brief remarks. No doubt in deference to Premier Li’s desires, no questions were permitted from journalists. It looked like a press conference but wasn’t.

But even a small, silent roomful of journalists posed a threat to the Chinese state’s desired vision of the visit: Cheng Lai, the Australian that Li’s government had wrongfully jailed for three years and released as a bargaining chip in ‘relationship stabilisation’ last year, was in the room. 

Extensive wire fencing and policing around central Canberra had kept any other unwelcome personages far from Mr Li, but one had got through. Imagine the embarrassing footage back in mainland China picturing the no.2 in the Communist Party system in the same room as this non-person?  Li’s entourage took action to physically obscure her in an attempt to airbrush her out of images and apparently had an argument with Mr Albanese’s visit management staff.

Asked about the issue hours later, Mr Albanese pretended he knew little about it – he told journalists he ‘wasn’t aware’ there had been an issue, and made the vague statement that ‘it’s important that people be allowed to participate fully’. He didn’t simply say ‘I was disappointed with some Chinese officials’ treatment of an Australian journalist in a visit to our Parliament. It obviously shouldn’t have happened and I have raised it with Premier Li’.

After the story went national with calls for Mr Albanese to act, the public controversy seems to have shifted him from his instinctive first reaction: by the time he and Premier Li were in Perth the next day, Mr Albanese said he had by then raised the incident with Li directly. 

This continues a pattern from Mr Albanese that we saw with his most recent ‘dialogue’ with President Xi Jinping in November last year, when it appears he did not raise the incident with Xi where a Chinese warship injured an Australian Navy diver in the water repairing our frigate just days before.  After extensive pressure, he made public statements condemning the Chinese military action, but in that case, after he had returned home to Australia and missed his chance to talk with the Chinese leader.

And it fits with the prime minister’s developing mantra to ‘cooperate where we can, disagree where we must’.   He has now told us this means we must not ‘manufacture confrontations’. That has an unfortunate whiff of pretending we have to manufacture confrontations with China rather than notice the real ones we are experiencing – Chinese military aggression, cyberhacking and foreign interference campaigns, even bussing in aggressive Chinese rent-a-crowds to intimidate and confront peaceful protesters in Canberra.

Perhaps as disappointing as his failures towards Cheng Lai and the Australian military is how Mr Albanese presented the aggressive rent-a-crowds organised by the Chinese Embassy for Li’s visit.  He told Perth radio ‘we had a lot of pro-Chinese people who were demonstrating their support for the visit of the Premier. They were very proud’.  What an odd – and deeply flawed – characterisation.  The crowds were organised, transported, equipped and monitored by the Chinese Government courtesy of its embassy here and the various state-linked groups that work with it in Australia.  This was not an outpouring of genuine or spontaneous support for Li, but a large state-organised propaganda and disruption exercise conducted by Beijing in Australia’s capital city. Journalists who asked the participants what they were doing were told “I’m not authorised to speak’.

What we have instead of a stabilising relationship is an expanding  series of ‘dialogues’ that the Albanese government presents as ways to manage our differences. Unfortunately,  we know from our own and others’ experience of these bilateral exchanges with China – on human rights, cyber hacking, military to military communications – that these meetings are empty vessels, all words no results. 

Having been in several such meetings, I can tell you that the experience consists of being read fixed talking points from Party headquarters by people with no authority to change a word or alter any aspect of policy or behaviour, who are being watched by minders who report back on what they say.  The high point is setting a time for the next meeting.

That’s what the new ‘bilateral maritime affairs dialogue’ and ‘hotline’ Mr Albanese and Mr Li announced will be without a change to what is now clearly Beijing’s policy of using its military to deliberately, repeatedly risk causing death and injury to the men and women of other countries’ militaries, including Australia’s. 

It’s not lack of dialogue that is causing these dangerous encounters. If we were in any doubt, Australia’s Navy Chief met with his Chinese navy counterpart in May this year, a week before the latest incident where a Chinese jet fighter pilot dropped flares in front of an Australian Navy helicopter, and raised his concerns about dangerous behaviour.  Clearly to no effect.

As with the waterfront of other Chinese policy and behaviour under Xi Jinping, there is no evidence Beijing is willing to take a single step back from its current path of military aggression and territorial theft, as our Defence Force are experiencing and as we see around Taiwan and with Chinese water cannoning and ramming in the Philippines’ sovereign territory.  The Chinese military know what they are doing and Beijing knows too. It is a policy set by the leadership.

Mr Albanese and his foreign minister Penny Wong like to present developments like new forums and hotlines as a journey, with the future destination presumably being one where the confronting actions and policies we and others are experiencing now from Premier Li’s government end.  That is wishful thinking, as I suspect they know, but the notion that their approach will produce results sometime in the future lets them get away with lack of delivery now.

In Mr Albanese, we have a leader who is celebrating the importance of direct face time with his Chinese counterpart and other senior officials like Premier Li, but who seems afraid to use this contact to say even simple difficult things that stand up for our citizens like Cheng Lai or our service men and women who he is sending into harm’s way.  If our national leader has such reluctance, what do we expect less empowered Australian officials to do in their own interactions with Chinese counterparts?

The world has a habit of crowding in and exposing pretence and denial of reality.  When the Chinese military kill or injure men and women of our Defence Force operating in the region, it will be obvious that these sham dialogues and hotlines have failed, but until then we are told to suspend disbelief and celebrate stabilisation. Preferably in silence and with a smile.

This is an updated version of an article first published in The Australian.