How did we get here?
Malcolm, tell me how you feel
On September 7, 2016, then-Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was in the Loatian capital of Vientiane, for the East Asia Summit, which was held in a giant government hall built for Laos by the Chinese government.
The Australian entourage had asked their Chinese counterparts for a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang. As Turnbull had seen China’s President Xi Jinping days earlier at the G20 in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, the Chinese side didn’t see a need and the offer was rejected. The Australians understood this and there was no ill will.
Meanwhile, Turnbull was meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that afternoon – the first time the two leaders were seeing each other since Australia had made the controversial decision to choose a French proposal to build 12 new submarines over Japan’s bid.
But as the two leaders began to talk, the latest developments in the South China Sea dominated the discussion.
Tensions had increased markedly earlier in the year when the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected Beijing’s claims over large parts of the disputed waterway. It was a blow to China’s growing militarisation of the South China Sea, where it was building artificial islands and defence bases out of coral reefs.
Abe and Turnbull raised concerns that new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had largely ignored the ruling in favour of the Philippines, telling other leaders to soften their language on the South China Sea.
As they left the meeting, a Chinese official hurried up to the Australian delegation to tell them that Premier Li wanted to see them now. Perplexed by the surprise invitation, the Australians joked that the Chinese must have bugged the room where Turnbull and Abe had just met.
They were shuffled into a room where Li was waiting. Li stood up, gestured his hands out, and said: “Malcolm, tell me how you feel”.
Turnbull told Li that while Australia had no claims to the South China Sea, it had an interest in encouraging all claimants to work in a manner that would uphold international law. It was the most forthright discussion the two nations had ever had about the South China Sea.
The meeting did not ruin Beijing’s relationship with Canberra; Li would visit Australia six months later and have dinner at Turnbull’s Sydney home. But it was the first sign that flashpoints in the region were going to make this relationship harder to manage.
Nothing on the shelf could solve this problem
By mid-2017, Turnbull and his advisor John Garnaut were ramping up their response to the threat of Chinese Communist Party interference in Australian politics. Garnaut, a former China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, had been hired by Turnbull after exposing the coercive influence of Chinese business people with links to the top of the CCP.
Politicians on both sides of the fence had been wooed by the Chinese Communist Party and in some cases, compromised, including then Labor senator Sam Dastyari. They had been lured by its emissaries in Australia on the promise of Chinese-Australian voters and political donations.
“The challenging thing with foreign interference strategy is there really was no template for what we were trying to do,” Garnaut says.
“We tried to create a framework that was universal. If a foreign state is acting in a way that is coercive or corrupting then that is a problem. But there was nothing on the shelf that could solve this problem for us.”
In December, 2017, the government introduced the foreign interference laws to federal parliament, angering the Chinese government, which summoned Australia’s ambassador to a meeting with Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry spokesman would then lash out at reporting of foreign interference in the Australia media, saying it was “biased against China, absolutely clutching at straws, purely fabricated and poisoning the atmosphere of China Australian relations”.
The government’s legislation became the model on which the US would base its own framework for dealing with “covert, coercive and corrupting” behaviour.
A smoking gun or a loaded gun
By 2018, the rollout of the superfast 5G network – with all it promises in terms of technological advances – was upon us.
Australia was taking this step earlier than most, and its telcos needed to know if Chinese state-backed company Huawei was in or out.
Turnbull tried many times to see if there was any way the cheap, fast Chinese technology could be included in the multi-billion dollar infrastructure program, enlisting the advice of Australia’s most secretive intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate.
“I sent it to ASD three times to see if we could mitigate the risk,” he says. “We simply could not. We had to recognise that if Huawei was requested by the Chinese government to act it would have to do so.”
The government had no evidence that Huawei had attempted to infiltrate Australia’s communication networks but the network had to be future-proofed.
“Threat is a combination of capability and intent. Capability can take a lot of time to put in place. Intent can change in a heartbeat,” Turnbull says. “It was less the identification of a smoking gun than of a loaded gun.”
Turnbull acknowledges the 5G decision “was big and obviously they [China] objected to that,” but he would have little to do with the fallout. The decision was among the last he took as prime minister.
“We were very careful in how we managed it. It was a very calculated, carefully planned announcement strategy. We gave Beijing and our allies, including the United States, a heads up. There was no surprise on the announcement. “
“My view has always been that you have to try to avoid gratuitous hyperbole or getting into rows unnecessarily.”
It was the second time within two years that Australia, a nation of 25 million, had led the way on a security policy that had repercussions for a country of 1.4 billion spanning almost the breadth of Asia.
When Europe had to decide on Huawei’s role in 5G this year, the politicians there turned to Australian MPs for advice.
The conversations between MPs in Australia, the UK and Europe about Huawei would lead to the formation of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. More than 200 MPs across the world now belong to the alliance, one of the fiercest and most public critics of the Chinese Communist Party.
China started thinking Australia was getting too big for its boots.
The Huawei and foreign interference decisions provoked a chain of events that would see China cut off all ministerial contact within 18 months.
Both featured prominently on a list of 14 grievances that would be delivered late this year by the Chinese embassy to Nine News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age at a meeting at Canberra’s Hyatt Hotel.
China will be the enemy
Then there was coronavirus.
Through a combination of good policy and good luck, Australia had largely contained COVID-19 before Europe, parts of Asia and the United States.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne was scheduled to appear on the ABC’s weekly flagship political program Insiders program on April 19 and she wanted to make an announcement.
The two superpowers, the US and China, had been trading barbs for weeks about the origins of the disease that would go on to kill more than 1.5 million people. The US had been pushing unsubstantiated claims that it had emerged from a Wuhan laboratory while China had been reluctant to publicly release details about the spread of the disease.
She called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, and China felt it was under attack again.
The 14 grievances released by China’s Australian embassy in November lay it out plainly. They accused Australia “of spearheading the crusade against China” in multilateral forums.
The Australian government rejects this characterisation.
It’s not us, it’s them, says Morrison.
“Australia has not changed, our view is the same,” he said this week. “Our view about our national interests, whether it’s on foreign investment or technology or communications, how our polity runs, how our freedom of our press, our parliaments, our views on all of these things haven’t changed, they’re exactly the same.”
When the Chinese embassy delivered the list in November, it added an explicit threat: “If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.”
The officials flagged that China would start looking for human rights abuses in Australia – indigenous affairs, elder abuse – to raise in multilateral forums to counter Australia’s criticisms of CCP conduct in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It was two days before the Brereton inquiry into Australian war crimes would be released.
Australian Foreign Affairs officials noted that the nation could be vulnerable on Australia’s record on indigenous affairs, but were bemused by the reference to aged care, notwithstanding the harrowing findings of an aged care royal commission.
China was fishing for something.
The backlash begins
Then the government-initiated Brereton inquiry landed in their lap on November 19. It found Australian soldiers were credibly accused of murdering up to 39 Afghans. It noted claims that two 14-year-old boys had their throats slit by Australian soldiers, but did not state if those allegations were true or confirm if they had counted them in the 39 credible cases.
Zhao published his tweet on Monday at 12:02pm. The image shows an Australian special forces soldier wrapping the head of a child, much younger than 14, in an Australian flag and slitting their throat.
The image is fabricated but the fear of an extended diplomatic conflict with China is real.
Business is spooked. Lobbyists for Australia’s biggest miner BHP was wandering the corridors of Parliament this week talking to politicians on both sides of the aisle. The company is worried about Australia’s largest export to China, the great $80 billion-a-year trade in iron ore. China is increasingly willing to pay a premium to source it from Canada or Brazil.
Turnbull is unapologetic.
“Every time the business community attacks the government, that is counted as a win by the CCP,” he says.
“People who seek to coerce you through threats or pressure will only be encouraged to do more of that if it is successful.”
China’s determination to apply maximum political pressure is becoming more obvious as the weeks roll on.
Hundreds of sailors are stuck on ships marooned off the coast of China loaded up with up to $700 million in Australian coal, unable to offload their stock. Their Chinese buyers are wearing the cost of keeping the ships floating, not the Australian exporter. The Chinese government is prepared to inflict harm on Chinese state-backed companies to prove a point.
The European Union, Germany, France, the United States have rallied around Australia, while its more exposed neighbours in the Indo-Pacific have offered private support.
“The one thing that is abundantly clear is that this sort of bullying – this wolf warrior diplomacy – is utterly counterproductive,” says Turnbull.
“Look at all the countries around the world that are supporting Australia and criticising China. People say ‘what is Australia’s game plan?’ Well, our game plan is to have a constructive relationship with China but there are obviously boundaries of trust.”
Foreign diplomats in Canberra this week, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, were surprised by Morrison’s personal intervention. The Prime Minister called out a tweet by a foreign affairs official not even in the top 500 members of the Chinese Communist Party.
“The analogy would be Xi Jinping picking a fight with the deputy communications director of the Department of Social Services,” noted China Policy Centre director Adam Ni on Twitter.
But in its own way the image galvanised a public response to a dispute that had been focussed on more specialised issues such as barley trade strikes or the fine print of foreign investment.
“While Trump was president with his erratic, aggressive, hyperbolic, unsettling of allies and rattling everyone’s sense of stability and order – there was a great opportunity for China to be as unlike Trump as possible,” says Turnbull.
“And yet the wolf warrior diplomacy seems to be trying to emulate him at the end of the day what has really changed is China’s approach to the world.”
Garnaut says it is not Canberra’s job to cover up misbehaviour. “I think that is sometimes what is being asked,” he says.
He warns that Australia has become a test case for Xi’s new China and its commitment to the idea of struggle.
“There is something galvanising in the Leninist system about being able to mobilise the system against an enemy,” he says. “It’s this mobilisation of campaign politics and struggle as a means of achieving political unity and unity of thought. The more I see it the more I think it will become part of our national existence.”
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.