The China consensus in Australia’s election
16 May 2022|

As a Chinese navy ship nosed around Australia’s northwest coast, China sailed to the centre of the formal foreign policy debate.

The ship got more attention from the press than the National Press Club face-off between Foreign Minister Marise Payne and her Labor shadow, Penny Wong.

The ship was the show, the debate the substance. And the debate substance—like most of the questions—was all China.

Media rules decree that new stuff is ‘news’. Thus, China’s ship got the headlines, not the consensus offering from the two senators on the state of the China relationship.

Payne and Wong didn’t say much that was new on China. Instead, they offered common talking points that reflect the new reality.

Call this the ‘new reality’ or ‘new normal’—although it’s not that new anymore. Australia is getting used to this reality.

It’s not ‘news’ that Beijing and Canberra aren’t speaking. The diplomatic icy age is five years old. China has been doing the trade squeeze for two years. The consensus sees a ‘new normal’ of ‘enduring differences’, the chilly description offered parliament in 2019 by the then head of the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department, Frances Adamson.

Payne and Wong jointly expressed the reality set by the icy age.

China has changed. The first question of the debate was what either party will do in the next three years to ‘de-escalate bad blood’ with China.

‘China has changed, we should start from that premise,’ Wong replied, making the same point that was embraced during the Press Club’s defence debate.

‘Both parties of government understand the difficult challenges of the relationship with China,’ Wong said. Focusing on the relationship, she said, ‘misses the central point, which is the reshaping of the region in which we live. And so whilst we might not be able to change China and how it chooses to engage with us, what we can do is focus on building the sort of region we want.’

Payne rejected the ‘de-escalation’ thought because it implied ‘Australia hasn’t done the right thing’.

The shared sentiment (although not so vividly expressed) is that it’s up to China to stop kicking. End the ‘coercive impositions,’ Payne said. ‘Desist from its coercive economic positions,’ Wong said.

Payne said China must show the responsibility expected of a great power in a global order. In Asia, Wong said, China must obey the rules of the road.

China needs to pick up the phone. The debate message is that any olive branch has to come from Beijing.

Payne said Australia is ready and waiting to engage:

I have said at every opportunity that Australian ministers, foreign ministers, prime ministers, trade ministers, finance ministers, treasurers, are open and available to engage with our colleagues in Beijing. And, of course, we are. But that opportunity has not been availed by the government in Beijing, and ultimately Australia continues to indicate that we are open to that constructive engagement.

The foreign minister said she’d written repeatedly to Beijing on issues including Covid-19, Afghanistan, and the Australians detained in China: ‘I patiently await a response.’

Taiwan. The debate went from relatively candid to cautiously proper on the question of whether Australia would change the way it cooperates with Taiwan.

Payne said Australia always supports Taiwan in areas where statehood is not required:

We have a strong representative office in Taipei and we will work closely with countries in the Pacific, like Nauru and Tuvalu, who continue to recognise Taiwan … I do think that it is important to note that across the Pacific we are the only country in the world which has a diplomatic mission in every country of the Pacific Islands Forum.

See Payne’s Pacific reference as a nod to a Taiwan that has been a more responsible player in the islands over the past 15 years. Taipei has stepped back from the worst excesses of the dollar-diplomacy war with China that can so disrupt South Pacific politics. Australia wants Taiwan to stick to the high road and not resume the buying-and-bribery contest with China for diplomatic recognition.

Wong repeated ‘a long-standing bipartisan position’ about preserving the China–Taiwan status quo: ‘We can do that by ensuring we talk with other parties in the region about the risks to the region from any unilateral change to the status quo.”

Wong and Payne each got a chance to ask the other a question. Payne’s was on the Quad while Wong’s was about Solomon Islands.

The Quad. Payne said the government had demonstrated its ‘absolute commitment to making the Quad a major piece of our regional cooperation’. If Labor won office, she asked, would it abandon Quad 2.0 as it abandoned Quad 1.0 in 2008 under the Rudd government?

Wong replied: ‘We’ve made clear that we are committed to the Quad. I made that clear some years ago publicly. Mr Albanese has made that clear.’

Solomon Islands. Wong said the government had been inconsistent in its approach to Solomon Islands’ security pact with China, lurching ‘from respecting Solomon Islands sovereignty and saying that “we can’t throw our weight around” to making comparisons about Cuba and the prime minister issuing threats about red lines.

‘So I’d like to understand why so inconsistent, and what is the position?’

Payne replied that the whole region was concerned about an assertive China seeking a security role in the region. She cited an assurance from Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare that Australia is the first security partner of the Solomons.

Payne: ‘In terms of red lines, though, I do think it is important that we are clear and that we receive in the way in which it has been made, the clear statement of Prime Minister Sogavare that the Solomon Islands will not accept a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands. That is something which he makes not just as a commitment to Australia, but he makes it publicly, overtly as a commitment to the entire Pacific.’

Wong: ‘Was the “red line” language that Prime Minister Morrison used discussed with you before using it? And what does it mean?’

Payne: ‘I don’t talk about my conversations with the prime minister, as you well know, Senator Wong. And it means that there are certain key security issues, such as the presence of a Chinese military base in our region, which would be of deep and fundamental concern to Australia.’

Wong: ‘Which is why there shouldn’t have been one in the first place.’

Australia has chosen the United States. A Canberra refrain of earlier decades was that Australia didn’t have to choose between China and the US. No longer. Australia has chosen because of what China has become.

Wong said the no-choice duality was the way John Howard’s government (1996–2007) could balance the principal strategic relationship with the US and the principal economic relationship with China. That no-choice balance was gone, Wong stated:

Clearly, the way in which economic power is being utilised for strategic purposes means that duality, as a model of engagement, is no longer the case. I would make this point, though—we have actually already chosen. We have an alliance that’s over 70 years old, between us and the US, an alliance with deep bipartisan support. So we have already chosen.

Wong said the US remained the ‘indispensible partner in the reshaping of the region’, while Australia must do much more with partners in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Payne said the alliance was foundational and fundamental for Australia’s approach to the region. ‘But we must be able to continue to pursue key relationships with countries like China … On the question of strategic choice, I think it’s very important to reinforce that Australia has no expectations and is not making any indication to any other of our partners in the region that they would be forced into making choices.’

A week out from the election, both senators naturally sought to score points and inflict hits, although, as Wong quipped, ‘We agreed we wouldn’t shout.’

On the central issue of their debate, the foreign minister and shadow foreign minister offered similar lines and shared perspectives. Two political pros expressed the China reality Australia now understands and sees ahead.

The balance point between row and kowtow has been dramatically reset. Australia has chosen. Pain levels have been raised and expectations of China have been lowered.