Missing his moment: PM afraid to say difficult things but comfortable leaving our military in harm’s way
Navy divers

Navy divers like these were injured by the PLA while freeing HMAS Toowoomba's propellors. Image: Defence.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

At APEC in San Fransisco, Mr Albanese told us this about his meeting there with Xi Jinping

“I also had an opportunity to meet with President Xi and to thank him for the welcome and the discussions that we had in my visit to China recently.”

He added:

On ‘breakthroughs on issues like military-to-military discussion and communication is something that has been raised when I was in Washington DC with President Biden. It’s something that I raised with President Xi when I met with him in Beijing. And it’s something that has now been agreed to. And I think that communication and dialogue is always good.”

But it seems he did not use his personal meeting with Xi to raise the unprofessional and unsafe behaviour of Xi’s military that injured Australian Defence Force divers the day before Mr Albanese let for APEC and met with Xi.

He and Richard Marles left telling anyone about the dangerous incident until Mr Albanese left town.  Richard Marle’s media release of 18 November says that the Australian Government had expressed its serious concern to China’s Government – but it seems that wasn’t done by Mr Albanese.

So, what is the value of this leadership communication and dialogue?

The incident from the PLA warship is more disturbing than the many dangerous manoeuvres and use of lasers against other militaries.  HMAS Toowoomba was stopped in the water because its propellors were tangled in fishing netting.  Divers were in the water to free the vessel so it could get underway. 

Normal maritime behaviour would be to render assistance to a vessel in this situation – but the PLA commander chose to behave dangerously and violently instead – injuring the divers working to ensure the safety of the Australian ship and its crew.

Mr Albanese seems comfortable to leave our military personnel confronting a dangerous Chinese military at risk to themselves but is not willing to risk having a difficult conversation or mentioning anything publicly about the aggressive behaviour of China if it might disturb the warm vibe of the Xi-Albanese relationship.

This is not cooperating where we can and disagreeing where we must. It is being afraid to say simple difficult things to protect our national interests and to stand up for those you are putting in harm’s way.

The Government has not given the Australian public any insight to what have been ongoing incidents between the ADF and the Chinese military where the PLA have behaved in an unsafe, aggressive and unprofessional manner since June last year. We used to be told about these incidents.

Since July – two months after the May election –  when asked about rumoured incidents, the new policy has been no comment from Defence, apparently for ’operational security reasons’.  Meanwhile, the Japanese, the Philippines’, Vietnamese, Canadian, Taiwanese and US militaries have all been subject to increasing dangerous behaviour from the Xi’s PLA. We know about this because their governments have told their people about the incidents.

I wonder if the only reason we have heard about the dangerous incident last Tuesday resulting in injuries to Australian military personnel is that it would have leaked if it hadn’t been announced.

What can Xi Jinping take from prime minister Albanese not raising the dangerous incident with him?  Only that maybe it wasn’t important to the Australian PM or that he was reluctant to speak.

If we hear shortly that Mr Albanese raised difficult issues with Xi but will not tell us what, it’ll sound a bit like a young student saying ‘I can’t go into details’ when asked did they do their homework. Mr Albanese has missed his moment.

This is not the right way to handle the China challenge.  We should expect our Government to be able to tell the Australian public about serious incidents that pose risk to our military, and for them to be able to work with allies and partners on this common challenge.

This should be able to be done be able to done calmly but clearly and directly in face to face meetings like the one Mr Albanese just had.  And the Australian people should know this is being done.

The stabilised Australia-China relationship clearly doesn’t reach to changing China’s aggressive military behaviour or intentions. Instead, the price of selling wine and lobsters and having Mr Albanese let into Xi Jinping’s presence turns out to be looking the other way while our military is in harm’s way.

Silence in leaders’ meetings or silence to the Australian people simply tells Xi and his PLA that what they do can continue and perhaps worsen. That’s not stability.