December 2021 to January 2022 catch-up

I hope you’re having a great start to the New Year (both 2022 and 虎年). After an extended break for the Australian summer, Beijing to Canberra and Back is returning.

There’ll be some tweaks in the coming weeks, including the addition of an accompanying website in beta mode and a shift to fortnightly rather than weekly publications (depending on the pace of developments in the bilateral relationship). Beyond that, the format and style will remain broadly the same this year.

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

Expanding anti-coercion coalition

From the AUKMIN 2022 Joint Statement issued on 21 January:

Ministers reaffirmed their support for the rules-based multilateral trading system, with the World Trade Organization at its core, and expressed concern regarding practices that undermine this system. Both agreed to foster global economic resilience and support trade diversification, and to oppose the use of coercive economic policies and practices.

Quick take:

This is the fourteenth bilateral joint statement that Australia has issued opposing economic coercion. It also marks the first time that the United Kingdom has joined Australia in issuing such a bilateral joint statement. The G7 statements raising concerns about economic coercion in May and December 2021 involved the United Kingdom. But economic coercion didn’t get a mention in either the readout from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in May 2021 or (unsurprisingly) the Joint Ministerial Statement from the last AUKMIN in 2018.

On top of the Joint Statement, concerns about economic coercion were raised in the AUKMIN 2022 press conference. Australian and UK ministers made explicit reference to “economic coercion”, as well as raising concerns about coercive practices more broadly. Both Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne’s op-ed marking AUKMIN 2022 and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ speech to the Lowy Institute called out economic coercion as well. The Chinese Embassy in Canberra issued a swift rebuke: “The joint statement of the Australia-UK 2+2 meeting is just recycling and making groundless accusations against China.” But the Embassy’s concerns seemed to centre on Australian and UK messaging on Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong rather than economic coercion. In a similarly blunt response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Zhao Lijian primarily criticised the AUKUS aspects of AUKMIN.

This latest Australian-UK joint commitment to addressing economic coercion follows similar recent statements that Australia has issued with first Vietnam in December 2021 and then Japan in January 2022. Flagged in November 2021 when prime ministers Morrison and Pham Minh Chinh met in Glasgow, the Australia-Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy reemphasises shared opposition to economic coercion. Per the joint strategy: “The two countries agree to work with partners to address economic challenges and coercive economic practices.” This message was also repeated in the press release from Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Dan Tehan, which marked the launch of the strategy.

Meanwhile, economic coercion featured prominently in the prime ministerial Joint Statement that accompanied the signing of the Reciprocal Access Agreement between Australia and Japan. As well as criticisms of coercive behaviour in general, the statement made plain that “[Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida] … opposed the use of economic coercion, which undermines the rules-based trading system and the links between nations fostered by economic engagement.” Interestingly, the Joint Statement put China on notice that it won’t be able to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) until it dismantles its politically motivated trade restrictions. The Joint Statement was unambiguous: “The two leaders … recognised the strategic significance of the CPTPP and noted that economic coercion and unjustified restrictive trade practices are contrary to the objectives and high standards of the Agreement.”

Do these kinds of statements help Australia respond to China’s economic coercion? As I’ve previously written, one could plausibly argue that criticisms of this sort won’t change China’s behaviour towards Australia. Yet equally, these jointly expressed concerns with Vietnam, Japan, and the United Kingdom still represent an incremental diplomatic win for Australia given Canberra’s explicitly stated goal of imposing reputational costs on Beijing. Moreover, this type of diplomatic messaging is not Canberra’s only tactic. As well as challenging China’s anti-dumping and countervailing duty measures against Australian barley and wine via World Trade Organization (WTO) processes, Canberra is seeking to respond to Beijing’s economic coercion by requesting to join the European Union WTO dispute consultations with China concerning restrictions on trade with Lithuania. The WTO route to redress is likely to be slow and winding but it adds legal and institutional force to the diplomatic responses to China’s economic coercion.

For reference, here’s the updated working tally of states/multilateral groupings that have joined Australia and raised explicit concerns about economic coercion:

  • Australia-Japan; 17 November 2020; Leader; Bilateral
  • G7 (with Australia as a guest country); 5 May 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs and development); Multilateral
  • Australia-United States; 13 May 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs); Bilateral [NB from a joint press conference between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Payne.]
  • Australia-New Zealand; 31 May 2021; Leader; Bilateral
  • Australia-Japan; 9 June 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-United States; 21 July 2021; Ministerial (trade); Bilateral
  • Australia-France; 30 August 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-India; 11 September 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-United States; 16 September 2021; Ministerial (2+2 ASUMIN – foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-New Zealand; 20 September 2021; Ministerial (trade); Bilateral
  • Australia-Vietnam; 3 November 2021; Leader; Bilateral
  • Australia-Malaysia; 9 November 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs); Bilateral
  • G7 (Australia invited); 12 December 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs and development); Multilateral
  • Australia-Vietnam; 21 December 2021; Leader & Ministerial; Bilateral
  • Australia-Japan; 6 January 2022; Leader; Bilateral
  • Australia-United Kingdom; 21 January 2022; Ministerial; Bilateral

Taiwan trending in Australia’s diplomacy

Again, from the AUKMIN 2022 Joint Statement:

Ministers underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues without the threat or use of force or coercion. They expressed support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations, as a member where statehood is not a prerequisite and as an observer or guest where it is.

Quick take:

This is a striking joint emphasis on the importance of security in the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s international role. To be sure, this AUKMIN statement was more cautious than the Australian-US AUSMIN statement in September 2021, which labelled Taiwan “a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries.” But the 2022 AUKMIN paragraph devoted to Taiwan is still conspicuous considering that the previous AUKMIN Joint Statement in 2018 didn’t mention Taiwan at all. It’s also noteworthy that AUKMIN went further than the recent Australia-Japan Leaders’ Meeting Joint Statement, which used more cautious language and didn’t raise the issue of Taiwan’s participation in international organisations. It instead only “underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”

Beyond these differences, messaging on Taiwan exhibits some conspicuous similarities. Much of the language in the AUKMIN joint statement is identical to the words used in the ill-timed (i.e., pre-AUKUS) Australia-France 2+2 Ministerial Consultations in late August 2021. Alongside their Australian counterparts, all four French and British ministers “underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encouraged the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” while also “express[ing] support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations”. With Canberra the common participant in these two statements, it seems prima facie plausible that Australia was the party advocating for stronger and consistent Taiwan language.

Of course, it’s equally possible that the French and UK governments have independently come to similar conclusions on the importance of Taiwan. Afterall, analysts and policymakers in London and Paris are tracking the same People’s Liberation Army Air Force flights through the Taiwan Strait and following Beijing’s concerted effort to exclude the Taiwanese government from international fora. The stronger language on Taiwan from France and the United Kingdom could also be partially explained by the growing focus on Taiwan among multilateral organisations such as the G7 (e.g., here and here) and the United States (e.g., here and here). Still, the uncanny similarities in language that both London and Paris used in joint statements with Canberra certainly gives the impression that the Australian government is a driving force in the effort to mainstream diplomatic support for Taiwan.

On another level, however, it’s largely moot whether this stiffening Taiwan language is being pushed by Canberra or whether it’s a product of countries simultaneously and independently landing on similar views. Regardless of the root cause, the result is the same: Australia and other countries are increasingly prioritising Taiwan in their bilateral diplomatic messaging. This includes not just expressing shared commitment to peace and security in the Taiwan Strait, but also in select cases support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international fora. How this diplomatic messaging will impact Beijing’s strategies and goals remains to be seen. But it’s clear that there’s a growing commitment in at least some capitals to resist China’s effort to internationally isolate Taiwan.

The bilateral temperature

Wang Xining, Chargé d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, speaking on 15 January at the opening ceremony of the 14th Australia-China Emerging Leaders Summit:

As you know, our government-to-government relationship is not in good shape. Unfriendly words and actions were exchanged between state departments and administrations. There are wide-range and sometimes deep-set misunderstandings between each other.

Quick take:

Chargé d’affaires Wang’s speech struck a conciliatory tone. At a stretch, the reference to “deep-set misunderstandings between each other” could even be read as an implicit acknowledgement that the Chinese government has misinterpreted some of the Australian government’s words and actions. (It’s admittedly a contorted stretch.) The speech still included barbs, especially for unnamed media moguls that Chargé d’affaires Wang called “septuagenarians and even octogenarians” who monopolise “major traditional media outlets” and “keep on preaching ideas both outdated and out of touch with reality”. Despite this, the tone was generally warm and upbeat.

This optimistic messaging comes on the back of Chargé d’affaires Wang’s positive speech in December 2021 and the incoming Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian’s sanguine outlook on bilateral ties. Ambassador Xiao emphasised on 26 January: “I look forward to working with the Australian government and friends in all sectors to increase engagement and communication, enhance mutual understanding and trust, eliminate misunderstanding and suspicion, promote mutually beneficial exchanges and cooperation in all areas between the two sides, and jointly push the China-Australia relations back to the right track.”

Do these statements signal a course correction in Australia-China relations? So far, the evidence appears uncompelling. Firstly, Chargé d’affaires Wang’s December and January speeches were delivered at events dedicated to cultural diplomacy and fostering people-to-people links. And on top of Chargé d’affaires Wang’s relatively junior position in the grand hierarchy of China’s foreign policymaking, the tenor of the Chinese Embassy’s public diplomacy is not necessarily indicative of Beijing’s approach to the broader bilateral relationship.

Secondly, even if the Chinese Embassy’s more conciliatory messaging reflected a shift in Beijing’s overarching view of Australia-China ties, Canberra isn’t buying it. Regardless of the wisdom or lack thereof of Canberra’s sceptical response, a range of Australian government voices hosed down the significance of the more buoyant Chinese Embassy language. Speaking to Sky News, Liberal MP Dave Sharma said: “China might be changing its tactics but its ultimate goals and objectives I think have not shifted here.”

Thirdly and finally, a positive shift in language likely won’t overcome the ongoing and intense disputes between Canberra and Beijing on human rights, international law, trade and investment flows, and global politics, among many others. Notwithstanding some past dramatic dips in ties that have variously stemmed from both Beijing’s and Canberra’s diplomatic messaging, most of the deepest disputes between Australia and China are a product of substantive policy disagreements. So, despite recent diplomatic soft talk, bilateral ties look set to stay in their (stormy) holding pattern.