Fortnight of 15 to 28 August 2022

Doubling down on disinformation

China’s Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, writing in The Australian Financial Review on 24 August:

“Australia’s commitment to one-China principle is clear-cut in both concept and content. … The Government of Australia is obliged to stick to its commitment to one-China principle, both in words and in deeds, in name and in essence, with sincerity, without discount.”

Quick take:

This article, which was later published on the Chinese Embassy’s website, further ups the ante in Beijing’s disinformation campaign on Australia’s one-China policy. In recent months, Beijing has offered a misleading impression of Canberra’s one-China policy in statements and readouts of bilateral meetings posted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Chinese Embassy websites. Now, Beijing’s deceptive rendering of Australia’s one-China policy has found its way into the opinion pages of the Australian press.

Beyond the apparent brazenness of China’s inaccurate description of Australian government policy, this op-ed is noteworthy because of the scale of the audience that it potentially misleads. Apart from officials and analysts, statements and meeting readouts posted to Chinese government websites likely receive a relatively modest audience among the Australian public. By contrast, a much larger and more diverse range of Australians are exposed to an op-ed in one of the country’s major mastheads.

As I argued last edition, this is dangerous for Taiwan. The kind of disinformation being spread about Australia’s one-China policy is part of a much larger suite of Chinese government tactics aimed at shaping public opinion globally and isolating Taiwan. These efforts to change the way in which publics see Taiwan might not be as central to China’s strategy as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernisation and PLA Air Force flights towards the island. But they are still aimed at incrementally creating conditions more conducive to China’s eventual annexation of Taiwan.

On top of dangers for Taiwan, such unchecked disinformation also poses risks for Australia. I’m admittedly still grappling with how precisely to parse the impact of such disinformation on Australian politics and policy. But it strikes me that, at minimum, this disinformation campaign could constrain Australia’s cross-Strait policy options through its potential shaping of Australian public opinion. Ambassador Xiao’s op-ed gives the Australian public the deceptive impression that Canberra is committed to, in his words, Beijing’s view that “the government of the [People’s Republic of China] PRC should exercise China’s full sovereignty, Taiwan included.” As well as misleading Australians, such messaging could eventually constrict Canberra’s policy options on cross-Strait issues by eroding the democratic licence for the Australian government’s current approach of engaging with and, where consistent with its one-China policy, supporting Taiwan.

As the 1972 joint communique establishing official tries between Australia and the PRC makes plain, Canberra “acknowledges” but does not necessarily support Beijing’s view that “Taiwan is a province” of the PRC. (Unsurprisingly, there’s a meme for that.) The linguistic nuance of only acknowledging the PRC position means that although Canberra “recognises the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China,” Australia need not accept, much less actively endorse, efforts by China to undermine Taiwan’s de facto independence and make it in practice a province of the PRC. By contrast, Ambassador Xiao’s rendering of Australian policy implies that Canberra is committed to supporting Beijing’s view that Taiwan is already in principle and ought to be in practice a province of China.

If Ambassador Xiao’s disinformation gains currency, it can be expected to limit Australia’s policy options. More Australians erroneously believing that Canberra supports Beijing’s one-China principle could easily undermine the perceived legitimacy of Australia’s diverse and growing connections with Taiwan. For example, the successful propagation of the Chinese government’s view that Canberra adheres to Beijing’s one-China principle may undermine domestic acceptance of Australia’s principled and relatively forward-learning positions on a range of Taiwan-related issues. These include Canberra’s recent strong advocacy for the preservation of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and its support for Taiwan’s membership of/contribution to international organisations where appropriate and/or where statehood is not a prerequisite.

Despite what I’ve suggested, is the impact of Beijing’s disinformation campaign likely to be that far reaching? Probably not in the short term. It would be a stretch to claim that the Australian government will immediately encounter dramatically stronger domestic opposition to, for example, its support for Taiwan’s contribution to international organisations simply by virtue of the Chinese government’s disinformation. But while the Chinese government’s efforts to shape public perceptions of Australia’s one-China policy might not immediately constrict Canberra’s range of movement, there is the serious long-term risk that it could undermine popular acceptance of Australia’s engagement with and support for Taiwan by convincing the Australian community that their government is bound by Beijing’s one-China principle.

Australian Representative Jenny Bloomfield launching the Australia-Taiwan English Language Learning Partnership Action Plan on 17 August 2022 [Jenny Bloomfield/Twitter]

Preserving Australia’s Taiwan policy latitude

Australian Representative Jenny Bloomfield speaking about the Australia-Taiwan English Language Learning Partnership Action Plan on 17 August:

“Australia and Taiwan are Indo-Pacific partners with rich Indigenous histories, open, diverse societies, and close economic and people-to-people links.”

Quick take:

Australia’s language on Taiwan has significantly stiffened in recent years. This includes the evolution of AUSMIN language that culminated in the 2021 Joint Statement emphasising “Taiwan’s important role in the Indo-Pacific region” and labelling it a “leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries [i.e., Australia and the United States.” But Representative Bloomfield’s speech is the first instance I can recall of the specific formulation of Australia and Taiwan as “Indo-Pacific partners”. It’s also the first public example I’ve seen of an Australian official (as opposed to a minister) using such warm and forward-leaning language on Taiwan. (Please correct me if I’ve missed something on either of those counts.)

This messaging provides another concrete example of the value of counteracting Beijing’s one-China disinformation campaign. A successful Chinese government effort to convince Australians that Canberra shares Beijing’s one-China principle would likely make messaging about Australia and Taiwan as “Indo-Pacific partners” much harder to justify and sustain. The point is not that describing Australia and Taiwan as “Indo-Pacific partners” is objectively the right form of messaging for Canberra. One can remain agnostic on Representative Bloomfield’s messaging or even oppose it and yet still think that Canberra should retain its freedom to choose from a wide range of cross-Strait messages and positions consistent with its relatively flexible one-China policy. In other words, the core issue with Beijing’s disinformation is that foisting the one-China principle on Canberra would lock Australia into a narrower path on Taiwan. And from the point of view of maximising Canberra’s strategic autonomy, such an outcome is a net negative for Australia regardless of one’s view of recent changes in the Australian government’s messaging on Taiwan.

Last edition, I made the case for the Australian government to counteract Beijing’s disinformation by explicitly correcting the Chinese government’s misleading statements. Given the above considerations, I’d be inclined to argue that the case for such a correction is even stronger in the wake of Ambassador Xiao’s op-ed. If the above analysis is right (and please tell me if you think it’s not), then there’s the real risk that the Australian government will undermine its own cross-Strait policies if it leaves Beijing’s disinformation unanswered. Sustaining domestic political support for Australia to engage with and, where consistent with its one-China policy, support Taiwan depends on public understanding and acceptance of Australia’s one-China policy and the government’s associated approach to Taiwan. The Chinese Ambassador’s article directly undermines the basis for this by seeking to propagate the falsehood that Australia supports the one-China principle and is locked into the view that Taiwan is and ought to be a province of the PRC.

Accepting the argument that the Australian government should set the record straight, such a correction does need not be elevated to a full-blown ministerial statement. Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong might instead use a speech to reiterate Australia’s one-China policy and clarify that although the Australian government acknowledges the Chinese government’s position, Canberra doesn’t subscribe to a one-China principle. Even less dramatically, Minister Wong and perhaps some of her ministerial colleagues could simply incorporate a rebuttal of the idea that Australia adheres to the one-China principle into regular responses to media questions on Taiwan.

Although the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website might not be bookmarked by most Australians, there is also arguably a case for updating DFAT’s language to explicitly debunk the notion that Canberra has adopted Beijing’s one-China principle. If the Albanese government has an obligation to ensure that the Australian public clearly understands Australia’s one-China policy and the space that this provides Canberra to tailor responses on cross-Strait issues, then ministerial messaging on the issue is essential. But a similar logic likely holds at the departmental level as well. Perhaps DFAT should issue an explainer or fact sheet laying out the finer nuances of Australia’s one-China policy and making plain that it is not now and has never been tantamount to the PRC’s one-China principle.

Of course, there may be pragmatic grounds for not wanting to directly contradict the Chinese Ambassador in either a speech or responses to media questions. Rebutting the substance of a Chinese official’s op-ed may be seen as neither a productive nor a diplomatically astute use of ministerial energy (even if it’s done relatively obliquely by not mentioning Ambassador Xiao by name). In that case, there may be an argument for leaving the Chinese government’s words unanswered for a period and then taking the initiative with a positive statement of what Australia’s one-China policy is and, crucially, what it is not. As well as potentially reducing the likelihood of a backlash from Beijing, such a delayed response would be less obviously reactive and more of an agenda-setting manoeuvre from the Albanese government. Perhaps such an approach could be timed to coincide with AUSMIN 2022 or a strong unilateral US statement on Taiwan to provide some measure of diplomatic cover.

But even if the Albanese government’s messaging doesn’t take the form of a quick and direct riposte to Beijing, presumably there’s every chance that China still won’t approve of an explicit Australian disavowal of the Chinese government’s one-China principle. It stretches credulity to breaking point to imagine that the Chinese government doesn’t know that it is offering a misleading rendering of Australia’s one-China policy. But Beijing might still be unhappy that its disinformation was pointed out. And this displeasure might remain even if the pointing out is done in a cautious and considered manner.

There may also be misgivings in some quarters of the Albanese government. This may be especially likely considering that actively clarifying that Australia doesn’t support the PRC’s one-China principle might be seen as an unhelpful play while ministers are trying to stay “positive” about relations with China. But as the Prime Minister and his ministers have been at pains to stress, Australia shouldn’t and won’t compromise on matters of policy to please the Chinese government. And given that there are few matters of China-related policy more foundational than the one-China policy, Canberra arguably has a compelling case for clearly and consistently correcting Beijing’s disinformation on the issue.

Aggregate leader-level engagement

The number of face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and governor-generals and Chinese leaders and senior officials, December 1972-August 2022:

Quick take:

This graph combines previously shared data on meetings at the level of Prime Minister with data of meetings at the level of Governor-General. It hopefully offers something akin to an aggregate record of leader-level meetings between Canberra and Beijing since the establishment of official ties. As with the data on prime ministerial meetings shared last edition, the underlying database on which the above graph is based is still very much a work in progress and doubtless misses some face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and governor-generals and Chinese leaders and senior officials. This is especially likely to be true of the first decade or so of the formal diplomatic relationship. As with the prime ministerial data, the absence of any in-person meetings in 2000 also appears odd in the context of on average three such meetings each year in the five years before 2000 and on average five such meetings each year in the five years after 2000. Like last edition, any corrections or additions that readers might be able to offer would be gratefully received. I’ll continue updating and correcting this graph as I capture more datapoints.

The vast majority of the Chinese leaders and senior officials captured in the above dataset are Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials at the level of Politburo or above or Chinese government officials at the level of Minister or above. In a small number of cases, the data includes meetings between prime ministers and governor-generals and senior Chinese representatives who did not hold CCP or Chinese government positions at those ranks (e.g., former Vice Premier Gu Mu’s meetings in 1987 with Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Governor-General Ninian Stephen). Although the inclusion of these meetings can certainly be debated given that they may not carry the same import as a true leader-level meeting, I’m inclined to add them given the prime ministerial and governor-general participation.

Noting these caveats, here are a few preliminary observations:

  • Australia is currently experiencing the most sustained period since 1989-91 without engagement between the Prime Minister and Governor-General and Chinese leaders and senior officials. This historical contrast is especially striking considering that prime ministers and governor-generals met with Chinese leaders and senior officials on average more than six times each year in the ten-year period 2006-15.
  • Since the freeze in high-level engagement between Canberra and Beijing after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Australia-China relationship has not experienced any other break in face-to-face meetings as sustained as the current episode. This current curtailment of engagement at the level of Prime Minister and Governor-General has lasted more than two years since November 2019 (last update August 2022).
  • Even in the 1970s and 1980s—when face-to-face meetings between Australian and Chinese leaders and senior officials were much less frequent—the longest period without a meeting for the Governor-General or Prime Minister was the period of April 1973 to June 1976. Leaving aside the post-Tiananmen Square Massacre collapse in leader-level meetings, this means that one would need to go back to the very earliest years of the Australia-China relationship to find a longer gap in face-to-face meetings at the leader level. This also means that there have only been two gaps in face-to-face leader-level engagement longer than the current curtailment: 1973-76 and 1989-91.

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