Fortnights of 23 May to 19 June 2022

Mea culpa for the tardiness of this newsletter and its slightly/very bloated form. A punishing bout of flu combined with work travel kept me away from government press releases. In what follows, I won’t even try to cover all the twists and turns in these last few bumper weeks of bilateral ties. Instead, this issue will only do a measure of justice to three of the developments that caught my eye. Beijing to Canberra and Back will be return to its regular fortnightly programming in the next issue.

More reports of rapprochement

China’s Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian speaking at the National Conference of the Australia-China Friendship Society on 11 June:

“The healthy and stable development of China-Australia relations is in line with the fundamental interests and shared aspirations of our two peoples, and conducive to peace, stability, development and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. So long as both sides stick to the right direction of our relationship, uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit, strengthen dialogue and communication, properly handle differences, China-Australia relations will surely embrace an even brighter future.”

Quick take:

Ambassador Xiao’s speech typifies a dramatic post-Australian federal election shift in the way the Chinese government describes bilateral relations. As well as the Ambassador, spokespeople from both the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) now regularly describe Australia-China ties as being a positive for both countries and the wider region. Since the change of Australian government, this kind of upbeat language has become a mainstay of MFA talking points at the regular press conference (e.g., here and here). Even contentious developments, such as the encounter between Australian and Chinese military aircraft in the South China Sea (on which, more below), haven’t stopped usually combative MFA spokespeople from emphasising the mutual importance of the Australia-China relationship. So buoyant is the mood that even the typically pugilistic Global Times is showcasing the upside of bilateral relations.

If optimistic language wasn’t enough, the roughly 29-month long drought in ministerial contact has also broken. On 25 May, I (tentatively) predicted there’d be a direct ministerial meeting between Canberra and Beijing before the year was out. But I didn’t expect it to happen this fast. Despite the stream (maybe it’s a torrent now?) of relatively positive rhetoric from the Chinese government and face-to-face ministerial talks, I remain cautious about the long-term trajectory of political and diplomatic ties. Beijing still seems to be holding out for a substantive policy shift from Canberra before the relationship reverts to a regular schedule of high-level contact at the ministerial level and above. This, presumably, is the implication of MFA Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s claim on 13 June: “to improve China-Australia relations, there is no ‘auto-pilot’ mode. A reset requires concrete actions.” It’s reasonable, I think, to conclude that the “concrete actions” called for by the Chinese government entail more than just opting for less combative rhetoric about China.

So, where does that leave bilateral ties? The flurry of more positive messaging from Beijing, including at the leader-level, combined with the first direct ministerial contact since January 2020 are clear signs of an upward swing in the trajectory. But the broader political and policy context points to a ceiling on how high the relationship can go (for now). Not only has the new Australian government backed in the China policies of its predecessor and made plain their unwillingness to compromise on substantive political and policy points to please the Chinese government, but they’ve said that bilateral relationship repair should start with Beijing lifting its trade restrictions. As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has emphasised: “It is China that has placed sanctions on Australia. There is no justification for doing that. And that’s why they should be removed.” Given China (so far) appears unwilling to make that kind of concession first, the political and diplomatic relationship seems unlikely to shift to a dramatically more positive trajectory. Rather than a reset, we seem to be heading towards a moderately more positive (but still generally tense) settling point.

And that’s before we start thinking about the future pitfalls for bilateral ties. As well as longstanding and intense disagreements over human rights abuses in China, the national security dimension of Australia’s investment review processes, high-profile consular cases, and much besides, the future might throw up new and severe roadblocks for the relationship. On top of the new review of the 99-year lease by the Chinese company Landbridge of the Port of Darwin (to which the Albanese government has committed), there’s the potential use of Australia’s Magnitsky-style sanctions against senior Chinese government or Party officials who have been implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Moreover, there’s also the enduring possibility of the Australian government rejecting a large Chinese investment bid on national security grounds. Any one of these developments could reverse or at least stall the recent upward trend in bilateral relations.

Does all this mean that more Australian ministers won’t meet their Chinese counterparts in the next few months? In a word, no. Although political and diplomatic ties might be unlikely to get back to their regular pre-2020 rhythm, there’s still scope for Australian and Chinese foreign ministers to meet on the side-lines of multilateral meetings as the Indo-Pacific’s summit season ramps up in November. Nevertheless, I’d expect any high-level ministerial engagements to still be ad hoc and relatively few and far between for the rest of 2022 and perhaps even beyond. Pending, of course, a significant policy concession or political gesture from either Canberra or Beijing (both of which seem unlikely at present).

That said (I promise this is the final point), Canberra’s softer rhetorical tone is still likely to appeal to Beijing even in the absence of substantive political or policy concessions. For example, China almost certainly appreciates the new Minister for Defence Richard Marles not continuing his predecessor’s regular habit of comparing (albeit indirectly) the military challenge posed by China today with the threat represented by Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It also probably didn’t go unnoticed that recent Australian press releases (regarding meetings with US and Indian and EU trade/commerce ministers) didn’t mention “economic coercion”.

These press releases from the new Minister for Trade and Tourism Don Farrell were short and were issued on the occasion of a World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva. So, it’s entirely possible the absence of “economic coercion” language doesn’t constitute a shift from the previous government’s strategy of seeking to cause China reputational damage by regularly raising concerns about coercive economic practices. The case for concluding that the new government’s approach to messaging on this issue hasn’t shifted is strong considering that “economic coercion” was mentioned in the Quad leaders’ joint statement issued just days after Albanese became Prime Minister.

Still, at the risk of overreading ministerial press releases, the absence of a reference to “economic coercion” in messaging on trade meetings with likemindeds who’ve previously joined Australia in calling out coercive trade practices piqued my interest and may well have been noticed and welcomed in Beijing. This is not to endorse a reduction in the diplomatic emphasis on concerns about economic coercion (if that is in fact happening). But it is to say that any such shifts in diplomatic language will probably further push bilateral ties in an upward direction even if Canberra doesn’t shift on the many substantive political and policy positions that have deeply frustrated Beijing in recent years.

Top-down PLA strategy or ad hoc actions?

From the Australian Department of Defence’s press release on the interception of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force J-16 fighter aircraft in the South China Sea on 26 May:

“The intercept resulted in a dangerous manoeuvre which posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew.”

Quick take:

With both the Australian and Chinese governments (understandably) offering limited detail on this military encounter, it’s hard to reach firm conclusions about its significance. Were the PLA aircraft’s actions a deliberate effort to endanger and intimidate the RAAF aircraft and by extension deter Australia’s military presence in the South Chia Sea? Or is it possible that the incident was a result of the PLA Air Force pilot’s unauthorised decisions or even human error? If the PLA aircraft’s actions were authorised, at what level of seniority were these actions approved and are they likely to become part of PLA Air Force standard operating procedures? Do these actions indicate a change in PLA Air Force tactics in the South China Sea and perhaps even a shift in China’s strategy towards more assertive measures aimed at deterring external military presence? These and a range of other similar questions mean the implications of the incident are still relatively murky.

All that uncertainty notwithstanding, one reason for thinking that the incident wasn’t a product of an unauthorised decision or human error is its apparent location. Although the Australian media release didn’t specify where in the South China Sea the incident occurred, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said it took place proximate to the Xisha or Paracel Islands. This is the northernmost group of disputed South China Sea islands/features, which is also closest to both the Chinese mainland and large PLA Navy and Air Force bases on Hainan Island. This is also the group of disputed South China Sea islands/features that has been firmly in China’s hands the longest—South Vietnam was fully expelled from these islands/features in a deadly battle in 1974. China has also made the bold and legally dubious decision to draw straight baselines around the Paracel Islands, thereby seeking to claim all the waters out to 12 nautical miles surrounding these islands/features as China’s territorial waters.

For all those reasons, it would be unsurprising if China was much more sensitive to foreign military activities close to the Paracel Islands than similar activities around the Spratly Islands or in areas of the South China Sea far from Chinese-controlled features. So, this kind of more assertive PLA Air Force response to a RAAF aircraft may well be a product of the incident’s location proximate to the Paracel Islands. This in turn means that it’s entirely possible that the PLA aircraft’s actions were authorised but that this isn’t indicative of a broader shift in PLA tactics or China’s overreaching strategy towards external military presence in the South China Sea in general. In other words, this encounter might simply be indicative of how the PLA Air Force will respond to foreign military activities proximate to the Paracel Islands specifically.

Of course, even if the above explanation is correct, the PLA Air Force’s response is still concerning. On top of its apparently dangerous nature, the PLA Air Force’s actions were seemingly an effort to defend legally dubious maritime claims that are themselves based on contested territorial claims. So, China’s militarily response may be neither surprising nor indicative of a broader shift in tactics and strategy in the South China Sea as a whole. But these plausible caveats don’t make the actions any less dangerous or inconsistent with international law. Moreover, there also are recent signs of more assertive PLA Air Force tactics well beyond the South China Sea. It’s therefore too early to conclude that this latest incident doesn’t foretell a shift towards more muscular tactics and strategies from the PLA in China’s air and sea approaches.

In the absence of additional publicly available information, we should remain open to the possibility that this was an unauthorised action or human error. On balance though, I’m inclined to conclude that this was probably formally authorised at some level (precisely how high is unclear) and may be part of the PLA Air Force’s standard operating procedures proximate to the Paracel Islands. If all that is true, the incident might not be evidence that China has changed its tactics and strategies in the South China Sea in general. But it would equally be unsurprising if Beijing began using these tactics in other parts of the South China Sea and shifted its strategy to embrace a more forward-leaning form of military deterrence aimed at complicating Australian and other external military presence in this disputed waterway. Although the precise military and strategic significance of this incident might remain uncertain, we can at least be confident that this isn’t the last time the strategic implications of encounters between the PLA and foreign militaries in the South China Sea will be debated.

Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon aircraft flies overhead while Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Arunta sails in company with United States Navy destroyer USS Momsen and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Yūdachi in the South China Sea during the regional presence deployment [ Regnor Vondedenroth]

Out of the Pacific family by implication

Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong speaking to Radio New Zealand National on 16 June:

“[W]e do have concerns about the security of the Pacific being engaged in by nations outside of that Pacific family.”

Quick take:

Positive rhetoric about the Australia-China relationship is proliferating among Chinese officials and the state-controlled press. Despite this, the substantive political and policy divide between Canberra and Beijing regarding the Pacific appears to have widened ever further in recent weeks. Having simmered since roughly 2018 when press reporting emerged about an apparent PLA effort to secure an access arrangement in Vanuatu, the Australian government’s concerns about China’s security role in the Pacific is now at a rolling boil. Building on the previous Morrison government’s deep discomfort with China’s security aspirations in the region, the Albanese government now regularly and pointedly reiterates messages that seem to deny China a legitimate role in securing the region.

Speaking in Honiara earlier this month, Minister for Foreign Affairs Wong stated: “Australia’s view does remain that the Pacific family should be responsible for our security. And the Pacific family is more than capable of providing that security.” Taken in combination with a series of press conferencesmedia releases, and interviews, the implications of the Minister’s remarks are clear. In Canberra’s eyes, Australia is part of the “Pacific family” and therefore has a vital and legitimate role to play as a regional security provider. By contrast, China is a nation “outside of that Pacific family”, and therefore its efforts to contribute to regional security are to be met with deep reservations. This position contrasts markedly with the Chinese government’s view that “China is a direct stakeholder in the security of the South Pacific region.”

Canberra’s efforts to delegitimise Beijing’s security role in the Pacific is especially striking in the context of the Chinese government’s almost deferential language about Australia’s role in the region: “China always respects the historical and traditional ties between Australia and the Pacific island countries.” Ambassador Xiao even floated Australia-China cooperation in the Pacific, remarking during a speech on 11 June: “China attaches great importance to Australia’s traditional ties in the Pacific islands, and is willing to maintain communication with Australia, engage in active discussions on how to better support the sustainable development of island countries and on trilateral cooperation.” This followed similarly positive messaging about Australia’s role in the Pacific from the Chinese Embassy on 26 May and came on the back of repeated assurances from Beijing that “China has no intention to establish military bases [in Solomon Islands].”

It’s also potentially noteworthy that this Australian language about the security of the “Pacific family” being provided by its own members didn’t make it into the joint statement between Minister for Foreign Affairs Wong and her New Zealand counterpart Nanaia Mahuta. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister also refrained from using this kind of language during their joint press conference. Despite many mentions of the Pacific and security, the joint statement didn’t replicate any of the indirect objections to China playing a security role in the region. To be sure, it’s possible that Wellington shares Canberra’s concerns but didn’t want to elevate them so publicly by including them in a bilateral joint statement. But it equally seems possible that Canberra’s concerns have opened a significant foreign policy gap with Wellington.

None of this is to say that Australia shouldn’t object to China taking on a security role in the Pacific. The question of the costs and benefits of standing strongly against or accepting China’s expanding security activities in the region is far too big and complex to begin to answer here. But we can at least conclude that Canberra’s and Beijing’s contrasting positions on the legitimate security role for China in the region adds another dispute to the already long list of political and policy disagreements between the Australian and Chinese governments.

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.