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Michael Pascoe: ‘Dingo Warriors’ bait Albanese’s China visit

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has improved relations with China through diplomatic efforts. <i>Photo: TND</i>

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has improved relations with China through diplomatic efforts. Photo: TND

Former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, last week wrote a piece praising the rise of diplomacy in our dealings with Beijing, claiming that since changing prime minister, we don’t have a defence minister and senior public servants beating the drums of war, running roughshod over the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Opinion pieces can age quickly. Raby’s claim didn’t last the week.

“On coming to office, the Prime Minister imposed a high degree of discipline over his cabinet,” Raby wrote.

“Though he left in place his predecessor’s key security advisers, he had no ‘wolverines’ on his backbench.”

Sabre rattling

No, but he has “dingo warriors” in his Deputy Prime Minister/Defence Minister and head of ASIO, both publicly rattling sabres with curious timing ahead of Albanese’s China visit.

Raby wrote that Richard Marles had “become an oral contortionist when trying to avoid the word ‘China’ as he attempts, with little success, to justify Australia’s largesse towards the US military-industrial complex”. The ink was barely dry when Marles pushed the envelope at a defence conference in South Korea.

“Australia does not take a position on the final status of Taiwan other than it must be arrived at peacefully, consistent with the will of peoples on both sides of the strait, and not through the use of force or coercion,” he said.

“But the consequences of US-China conflict over Taiwan are so grave that we cannot be passive bystanders.”

Add those two sentences together and, from the Chinese perspective at least, the Deputy Prime Minister says Australia will go all the way with the USA should China attempt to use force against Taiwan – that is we’ll go to war.

Almost simultaneously, ASIO boss Mike Burgess was spooking it up with his Five Eyes peers in Silicon Valley, shouting to the world that China was the worst thief ever.

No, I’m not exaggerating. His words: “The Chinese government are engaged in the most sustained, sophisticated and scaled theft of intellectual property and expertise in human history.

“I’ve been talking about espionage and foreign threats in Australia for a long time; I generally don’t mention countries but this is one where China is worthy of mentioning because Chinese government, Chinese intelligence services are an instrument of the state that have actually sanctioned the wholesale intellectual property theft over a good number of decades.”

Words matter in foreign relations, a point Raby was making in his article. Diplomats understand that. Defence and national security types often don’t.

That’s why their tongues are best held in check, and why it’s curious they were flapping last week so close to Albanese’s China tour, and just as Australia is enjoying the fruits of diplomacy in dealing with our most important economic partner.

Diplomatic successes

As Raby opined, Australian journalist Cheng Lei would still be in a Chinese jail if Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton were representing the Australian government.

I’d add that our wine makers wouldn’t be on track to regain access to the Chinese market, following the path of other trade blockages being cleared.

Yet there has been no fundamental change under Labor in Australia’s policy towards China – indeed, we’ve doubled down as America’s Deputy Dawg, further expanding US military bases here – but Albanese and Senator Penny Wong have managed to do it diplomatically.

That was something Morrison and Dutton did not and still don’t understand, either preferencing domestic political point-scoring over Australia’s best interests, or intellectually not up to the job. (Option C, both, remains available.)

Burgess’s predecessors were often people of broad experience, not electrical engineers who had spent most of their careers in the comparatively narrow cyber space of defence signals eavesdropping. A mind for diplomacy as well as security is less likely to be a hammer forever seeing nails.

As for Marles, not for nothing have I nicknamed him “Dutton with hair” as he strives to make Labor the party with the hairiest national security chest.

Dutton as defence minister was the first to break the diplomatic code over the One China policy, saying it was “inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action”.

Last week, Marles could be interpreted as saying “me too”.

Given the reality of Labor outcompeting the Coalition in turning Australia into an American military base, it is no longer our decision to make – but diplomatic types are smart enough to not say that.

A little progress

Language and ‘‘face” matters a great deal with China.

That knowledge was reinforced over the past week as I was one of five Australian journalists visiting Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai as members of an Asia Pacific Journalism Centre exchange visit, guests of the All China Journalists Association.*

It was the first such exchange since 2019, perhaps representing a little progress towards Australian media organisations being able to again have their China correspondents actually in China.

Despite the very real difficulties of working as foreign correspondents in China, there is no substitute for being on the ground, both for understanding the nuances of the country and picking up what can be lost between the lines.

With such nuances in mind, last week’s pronouncements by Richard Marles and Mike Burgess are curious. We’re left to speculate on whether they went off the reservation while among like-minded types overseas, talking tough lest anyone think they were going soft on China, or were speaking in accordance with Albanese/DFAT script.

The reality of encouraging more US military bases here is a statement that doesn’t need amplifying and the constant grey cyber war between the US and China is a given – so what was the upside for Australia just ahead of an important and promising prime ministerial visit?

It looks like diplomacy still has work to do when the defence and security industry pursues its own agenda.

Asked if Beijing’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy had been a mistake, a negative for the country, a senior Chinese academic said the answer was in its discontinuance.

It seems our Dingo Warriors are yet to catch up.

*The APJC has been facilitating such exchanges for a decade, over which the better part of two-score Australian journalists have been given the invaluable experience of feet on the Chinese ground.

In previous years the exchanges had been subsidised by DFAT but this time the ACJA picked up the tab. The ACJA is partly funded by the Chinese government, mostly by Chinese media organisations.

(This was my sixth trip to China, the first in 1978. I’m not counting three years in Hong Kong working for the South China Morning Post. On two occasions, Australian conferences I was speaking at paid the way, the rest on my own account. And no, Sinophobes, I am far too comfortable, experienced, travel-weary and, dare I say it, principled to have my opinions bought by a “free” trip.)

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