Week of 2 to 8 August 2021

Talking about talking

Foreign Minister Marise Payne addressing the Australia China Business Council’s Canberra Networking Day on 5 August:

“We’ve been advised by China that they will only engage in high-level dialogue if we meet certain conditions. Australia places no conditions on dialogue. We can’t meet the conditions such as the now well-known list of 14 grievances raised in the media last year. As the Prime Minister has said, indeed, no country would do that. But dialogue is not an end unto itself; it is a means to an end. And so we will continue to look for a constructive path forward, working with China where we are able to as a partner.”

Quick take:

This raises a range of tantalising questions. Were the conditions for high-level dialogue based on the 14 grievances? (The Foreign Minister’s framing leaves this ambiguous.) If so, which grievances were the conditions based on? Did Chinese government counterparts know that the Foreign Minister was going to go public with there being conditions for dialogue? Were the conditions an independent initiative from the Chinese Embassy in a bid to produce a deliverable? Or has the requirement come from Beijing?

Given these and other known unknowns, it’s hard to use this latest development as a reliable indicator of the trendline for bilateral relations. But at a minimum, it probably indicates that Beijing and Canberra are discussing at the official level whether their ministers should meet. That is on its own a noteworthy development. Of course, it’s early days, but it may be the start of a (presumably very long) process that could culminate in Australian minsters regaining access to their Chinese counterparts.

That said, the Foreign Minister’s framing might also effectively foreclose the possibility of ministerial meetings for now. The government has gone public not just with there being conditions for dialogue, but also with the government’s firm unwillingness to accept said conditions. In response, Beijing can either accommodate dialogue without conditions or double down on the option of no dialogue. Given China’s commitment to litigating the 14 grievances, it seems nigh on impossible that Beijing would back down and offer dialogue without conditions. So, perhaps we’re back to square one of no ministerial dialogue in the offing after all?

Bilateral diplomatic tactics aside, there’s presumably also a domestic political dimension to this story. There’s a federal election looming and the Australia-China relationship is one of the few areas of foreign policy where major party differences are emerging. The Foreign Minister’s remarks can plausibly be read as an effort to neutralise Labor criticisms of the way in which the Coalition has handled bilateral relations.

One key line of Labor attack is that the government has been playing fast and loose with belligerent rhetoric on China for domestic political gain and in so doing has jeopardised Australia’s national interests. Reiterating a criticism made in May by Senator Penny Wong, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said in June: “Australian [sic] needs more strategy and less politics when it comes to managing our differences with China.”

Politically speaking, the Foreign Minister’s speech is a counterpunch to this Labor criticism. An implication of her remarks is that better managing ties with China wouldn’t be easy for any government given the way in which Beijing imposes unacceptable conditions on even dialogue. From the point of view of domestic politicking, this takes responsibility for the lack of ministerial contact off the government’s shoulders and places it squarely at Beijing’s feet.

This won’t protect the Coalition from the broader Labor criticism that at key junctions the government took an impulsive and haphazard approach to China diplomacy. But it does at least insulate the government from the potential criticism that their ministers can’t call Beijing. And given slumping Australian public perceptions of China, it’s unlikely to play well politically for Labor to argue for dialogue with Beijing if it comes with strings attached.

We’ll say it again

The Chinese Embassy spokesperson’s remarks on 6 August in response to Foreign Minister Payne’s speech:

“The recent remarks by Foreign Minister Payne at the Australia China Business Council, as reported by The Australian, mischaracterized the current problem in China-Australia relations. As we have reiterated, the difficult situation in the bilateral ties is the result of Australia’s actions against China. We hope the Australian side will make serious reflection in this regard and take practical moves towards improving the bilateral relations.”

Quick take:

Given the emphasis on The Australian’s reporting, this response was presumably pumped out quickly and ahead of the full text of the Foreign Minister’s speech being available on the ministerial website. (Although at least some representatives from the Chinese Embassy were presumably in the audience on the day?) Would the full text of the Foreign Minister’s speech have changed the Chinese Embassy’s reaction?

The Foreign Minister did make some positive remarks about China. This comment struck me as noteworthy in that regard: “Australians across our community, not just in business, are proud to have supported the development of the Chinese economy … It’s been advantageous for our economy and for the Indo-Pacific region.”

Debates have been swirling, especially in United States since 2016, about whether the liberal democratic world should have facilitated and supported China’s economic rise over the last few decades. In that context, the Foreign Minister’s clear statement of the benefits of China’s economic development would presumably be noted and positively received in Beijing.

But despite those welcomed statements, the speech’s core emphasis was on the case for Australia to calmly and uncompromisingly pursue its national interests. Given the many areas of conflict between Beijing’s goals and Canberra’s security, economic, and political priorities, the bulk of the speech probably wouldn’t have prompted a shift towards warmer views of Australia among senior Chinese officials.

Sanctions diplomacy

The Foreign Minister’s media release on 5 August on strengthening Australia’s sanctions laws:

“The reforms will expand upon Australia’s current country-based autonomous sanctions framework to specify themes of conduct to which sanctions could be applied, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, gross human rights violations, malicious cyber activity and serious corruption.”

Quick take:

At least two of these categories of conduct could plausibly be applied to China’s Party-state. That does not mean that targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party officials are a forgone conclusion. But the context out of which the plan for amendments to the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011 emerged will likely create considerable pressure on the government to apply them to Party-state officials.

Australia criticised China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang earlier this year, while Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States imposed sanctions. Many considered these criticisms to be an inadequate response given the gravity of the human rights abuses occurring in Xinjiang. The early signs suggest that some parliamentarians, including influential Coalition voices, are now keen to pursue individual human rights violators in China with sanctions.

Fast forward to the end of this year when the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011 has been amended, it’s worth asking: If pursued, will such sanctions change China’s behaviour? Historically, it has been extremely difficult to change China’s behaviour via punitive measures. Given this, it seems highly unlikely that such sanctions would cause Beijing to change course.

In the wake of US and other countries’ sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China responded with tit-for-tat sanctions and there is (so far as I’m aware) no evidence of the Party-state amending its ethnic minority policies in response. Given Australia’s relatively small economic weight compared to the United States and others, it seems unlikely that Beijing would amend its policies in response to Canberra’s sanctions.

Does this likely inability to change China’s behaviour mean that the government shouldn’t pursue targeted sanctions against Party-state officials? Not necessarily. Changing China’s behaviour might be one metric of success, but it’s far from the only justification for imposing sanctions. A case could be made for such sanctions based on the imperatives of raising public awareness about human rights abuses and putting additional pressure on the Party-state to defend its policies.

Sanctions could also arguably be justified given the goal of ensuring that Australia’s opposition to systematic human rights violations is not restricted to diplomatic criticisms and initiatives in UN fora. In other words, the moral gravity of what is occurring in Xinjiang warrants tangible action regardless of whether such action will help end human rights violations there.

This very quickly takes us into analytically and morally messy terrain. If we’re not ultimately expecting to improve the human rights situation in China, then are the mooted sanctions more about Australia enhancing its own moral reputation than they are about assisting the victims of human rights abuses? Is it possible that such sanctions could make life harder for Australians caught up in China’s draconian ethnic minority policies? And will Australia be able to consistently impose sanctions when strategic partners, such as Indonesia, India, and Vietnam, have leaders and senior officials who have been implicated in massacressystematic political repression, and crimes against humanity?

None of this is to say that sanctions should not be utilised against Party-state officials. But it seems clear that Australia is only at the start of a challenging, contentious, and critically important debate about how to respond to China’s severe human rights abuses.

As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections very much appreciated.