Morrison’s G7 trip: ‘Golden era’ of China relations over as united response begins

This weekend’s G7 leaders’ summit in Cornwall in the UK might be the moment we look back on in a few years when major leaders stopped thinking about their countries’ relationships with China as mainly bilateral economic gold mines, and instead started to see Xi Jinping’s China as a multilateral strategic, technological and economic challenge that can’t be dealt with by any one nation alone—and to act accordingly.

The G7 gathers the leaders of seven of the world’s most powerful democratic economies together (Germany, Japan, France, the UK, Canada, the US, Italy and Canada) and gives them a platform for cooperation.

And this year’s meeting is centred on the China challenge, the pandemic and climate change.

It builds on the momentum established in March by the first-ever leaders’ meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, convened by Joe Biden less than two months into his presidency with his counterparts from Australia, Japan and India, prime ministers Scott Morrison, Yoshihide Suga and Narendra Modi.

That Quad meeting came out with a lot more than dialogue: it resulted in urgent combined work on Covid-19, climate change and reducing the vulnerability of critical supply chains to coercion. The four Quad leaders will bring this direction and urgency to the G7—because both Morrison and Modi have been invited to participate, along with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa.

We’re a long way from the ‘golden era’ mindsets on China that were common only six years ago. It was November 2014 when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Xi sealed the deal on the Australia–China free trade agreement. And it was in 2015 that UK Prime Minister David Cameron captured the sentiments of many political and corporate leaders when he spoke to Chinese state media before Xi arrived in the UK, saying:

It’s going to be a very important moment for British–Chinese relations, which are in a very good state, something of a golden era in our relationship. The change we will see is obviously the investment into our infrastructure, Chinese companies employing people and creating jobs. But I think it’s also a big win for China as well, having access to a country that is a leading member of the EU and has so many other contacts and roles in the world.

Those words look a little different now to how they did back then, given the nasty, coercive turn China has taken under Xi in recent years. We won’t hear Cameron’s sentiments echoed by Boris Johnson, who’s looking to initiatives like an Australia–UK free trade agreement to show that democratic partners can deepen trade in ways that answer the challenge of aggressive authoritarians.

The Quad and G7 leaders know that if they don’t work collectively on the China challenge, they will all be coerced separately by Xi’s China and they’ll fail to curb Beijing’s increasingly aggressive international conduct—on trade, territory, security, technology and key values like human rights.

That’s why the G7 foreign ministers’ communiqué that set the scene for this weekend’s leaders’ meeting reads like Australia’s China policy, covering the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and China’s coercive trade practices in terms familiar to those looking at Australia’s last four years of policymaking.

And it’s why the G7 trade ministers are so focused on re-energising the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution machinery and addressing unfair trade practices up to and including use of trade as a weapon against those who displease Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.

As Biden has put it in the lead-up to the G7, ‘We will focus on ensuring that market democracies, not China or anyone else, write the 21st-century rules around trade and technology.’

This is a moment for Morrison to seize, and to be backed as he does so by bipartisan and corporate support here at home.

Australia has led a significant chunk of the global China debate with decisions like excluding high-risk Chinese vendors from our 5G network, investing in our contribution to credible military deterrence of Beijing through last year’s defence strategic update, and passing new laws to reduce the impact of Beijing’s covert interference in politics and policymaking. Australia’s 5G decision was only made in August 2018 and at the time was seen to be a lonely one. Just three years later, the reasoning behind it looks like common sense, and the 5G landscape has been reshaped in unexpected—and positive—ways.

On trade, Australia is also in the middle of the new global conversation about pushing back against coercive practices and finding ways for multilateral groupings to hold Beijing to account against all the commitments it has made—and is busily breaching—whether in the WTO or in bilateral trade agreements.

The Australian experience with the Chinese state’s open economic coercion provides a sobering study for France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Italy’s Mario Draghi at the G7 as they think through the costs and benefits of the draft EU–China comprehensive investment agreement and assess the fundamental issue of whether they can trust Xi to keep any of the commitments in that agreement. The simple answer, based on his track record: no.

So, Morrison has some heavy lifting to do in Cornwall. He can bring Australia’s experience and policy toolkit along. But, more importantly, he can come home showing that Australia has a growing set of active multilateral partners in facing the China challenge. He can also return having built new personal connections with a leadership group that must continue to work more and more closely together not just on security, but on economics, trade and technology.