Fortnight of 28 November to 11 December 2022

Did Canberra compromise on targeted sanctions?

Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong writing in The Sydney Morning Herald on 10 December:

“Australia has consistently condemned human rights violations against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and across China. We will continue to advocate in multilateral institutions – at the UN Human Rights Council, at the International Labour Organisation, at the UN General Assembly. And we will continue to advocate directly with China, at the highest levels. Restarting high-level dialogue with China does not mean our differences will disappear. It does mean we have the opportunity to speak directly and candidly about the issues that are important to our values and interests.”

Quick take:

Minister Wong’s op-ed doesn’t mean that Canberra has definitively decided to not impose targeted sanctions on Chinese officials implicated in systematic and severe human rights abuses in Xinjiang. But the announcement of new targeted sanctions against a number of Iranians and Russians puts into stark relief the absence of such sanctions against Chinese officials. This contrast is all the more conspicuous considering that the announcement came just after the first anniversary of Australia’s Magnitsky powers. Indeed, the subtext of the Minister’s messaging seems to be that Canberra will hold off sanctioning Chinese officials (for now, at least) so as to take advantage of reopened lines of high-level communication to press Australian interests, including its human rights priorities.

Even if one strongly supports the moral principle of punishing those responsible for egregious human rights abuses, the Albanese government’s apparent decision to hold off on targeted sanctions against China is understandable. Pulling the trigger on targeted sanctions would entail significant risks for Australia and Australians. These include, among others, risks that:

  • China calls off the recently resuscitated ministerial- and leader-level contact between Beijing and Canberra;
  • China prolongs and perhaps even expands its trade restrictions against Australian exporters;
  • China fires back with counter-sanctions against Australian individuals and organisations;
  • China retaliates by arbitrarily detaining Australians in China or lengthening the detainment of Australians already held by Chinese authorities, including Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun; and
  • China takes retributive measures against Uyghur Australians, either through stepped up interference efforts in Australia or more pressure on their family members still in China.

Although the Albanese government hasn’t publicly offered any indications to this effect (at least that I’ve seen), it’s entirely possible that some of these threats have been delivered privately by Chinese government officials. Added to these (and possibly other) risks associated with imposing targeted sanctions, Canberra’s decision was probably also shaped by the uncertain practical payoff from such sanctions. Australian sanctions seem unlikely to change China’s repressive policies towards Uyghurs, especially considering that the targeted individuals are presumably already unlikely to travel to or have significant financial exposure in Australia. Meanwhile, at least some of the individuals that Canberra likely would have sanctioned (who’ve previously been sanctioned by a range of likeminded countries) have moved to other jobs outside Xinjiang. (That said, a number of the individuals who’ve been sanctioned by other countries and who’ve been implicated in what “may constitute … crimes against humanity” are still overseeing policies in Xinjiang.) Of course, these pragmatic considerations in no way detract from the powerful in-principle moral case for such sanctions or the potent message they’d send about Australia’s prioritisation of human rights. But Canberra likely couldn’t ignore the aforementioned practical matters either.

The above notwithstanding, the sanctions decision undermines the credibility of the Albanese government’s “never compromise” approach to China, as the Prime Minster himself has put it. Or, as Minister for Defence Richard Marles described the approach: “We are working to stabilise our relationship with China, without compromising our interests or sovereignty.” (Emphasis added.) Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the decision itself, it’s hard not to see the withholding of sanctions as a concession to Beijing’s concerns. To be clear, in making this claim, I’m not necessarily endorsing the view that Australia’s China policy should revolve around a strict “never compromise” standard. There’s a strong argument to be made that diplomacy and foreign policy often involve compromise and that statecraft is not the right arena in which to adhere to rigid rules and pursue moral purity. Irrespective, having set for itself a “never compromise” standard, the Albanese government’s apparent willingness to forgo sanctions to keep dialogue open with China is hard to reconcile with its own guiding principle.

To be fair, the non-imposition of targeted sanctions doesn’t amount to rolling back existing policy to please China (i.e., these sanctions have never been imposed against Chinese officials). And it’s worth remembering that just as the Albanese government hasn’t imposed targeted sanctions in the six-ish months that it’s been in power, the previous Morrison government didn’t impose such sanctions after the legislation of Australia’s Magnitsky powers in December 2021. Still, the Albanese government’s decision to not impose sanctions does look all the more like a concession considering past messaging on the issue. In an April 2021 address to the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Minister Wong said: “The Morrison Government should also consider targeted sanctions on foreign companies, officials and other entities known to be directly profiting from Uyghur forced labour and other human rights abuses.” In a bitter twist of irony, Minister Wong in that address criticised the Morrison government’s “slowness to act” on Magnitsky sanctions, a point not lost on Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Birmingham (e.g., here and here).

None of this is to say that the Albanese government has necessarily made the wrong call by not imposing targeted sanctions on Chinese officials. (For the record, I support such sanctions while accepting that imposing them is a morally fraught calculation.) But longer-term, I can’t see how the Albanese government’s “never compromise” China policy can survive a refusal to impose targeted sanctions. The Albanese government confronts a choice: Either it persists with a “never compromise” China policy and imposes targeted sanctions on Chinese officials or it avoids such sanctions and embraces a China policy of perhaps rare but nonetheless very real compromises. As I read things, the Albanese government can’t have its cake and eat it too when it comes to this clash between the imperatives of statecraft and fundamental moral principles. Am I being too gloomy?

AUSMIN 2022 in Washington []

AUSMIN, Taiwan, and the status quo problem

The Joint Statement on Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2022 issued on 7 December:

“The principals reiterated Taiwan’s role as a leading democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, an important regional economy, and a key contributor to critical supply chains. They also reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and shared opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo. They further committed to working together to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations and enhancing economic, social, and people-to-people ties with Taiwan, and affirmed that they would continue working with Taiwan to enhance development coordination in the Pacific.”

Quick take:

Compared to the language on Taiwan in 2021, this year’s AUSMIN was a mixed bag. Elements of the paragraph seemed to have been finessed to reassure China, while others seemed to tone down the rhetorical support for Taiwan. Still other parts seemed to signal slightly stronger advocacy for Taipei. On the apparently positive side of the ledger from Taiwan’s point of view, the 2022 AUSMIN dropped the caveat from 2021 that “support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations” applied for Taiwan “as a member where statehood is not a prerequisite and as an observer or guest where statehood is a prerequisite for membership”. (The 2020 AUSMIN also had a similar, though less precise, caveat.) The 2022 AUSMIN instead offered seemingly unqualified support for Taiwan’s role in international organisations.

Although this looks like less hedged support, I’m not convinced it signals a stronger position on Taiwan. Whether the 2021 caveat is explicit or not, it seems highly unlikely that Australia will do anything inconsistent with it (e.g., start advocating for Taiwan’s membership of international organisations for which statehood is a prerequisite). This would seem to apply to the United States as well, though I’m much less confident on that front given the evolution of US Taiwan policy and the possible injection of cross-Strait issues into the heated rhetoric of the 2024 US presidential race. Regardless, it still seems to me that dropping the longwinded caveat in AUSMIN 2022 is more likely an exercise in cutting cumbersome verbiage than strengthening support for Taiwan. Especially considering that abandoning in practice the previously included caveat would likely be inconsistent with the respective Australian and US one-China policies as they currently stand.

Regarding the reassurance offered to China, “intent to strengthen ties with Taiwan” from 2021 is replaced with being “committed to … enhancing economic, social, and people-to-people ties with Taiwan” in the 2022 version. Lack of specifics in the 2021 language on the substance of “ties” could have easily been (mis)interpreted by China as erosion of the respective Australian and US one-China policies. The 2022 language makes plain that the enhancing of ties with Taiwan is unofficial in nature and so consistent with their respective one-China policies. Beyond offering an extra reassurance to China, the 2022 AUSMIN also uses softer language to signal support for Taiwan. Although Taiwan is still referred to as a “leading democracy,” the description of Taiwan as a “critical partner” in 2021 has been dropped. To be sure, 2022 (unlike 2021) refers to Taiwan as “an important regional economy, and key contributor to critical supply chains.” But this detail about the importance of the Taiwanese economy doesn’t, at least as I read it, signal the same level of emphasis on ties with Taiwan as the designation of “critical partner”.

Am I overanalysing these linguistic shifts between 2021 and this year? As always, very possibly. And it’s especially important to inject caution into the above analysis given that AUSMIN language is declarative policy and not necessarily indicative of what Canberra and Washington are doing on the ground in Taipei or in the Taiwan Strait. Still, given the change in government in Canberra and the much more positive atmosphere for Australia-China ties, it’s easy to imagine that these rhetorical changes aren’t just a product of happenstance and do in fact signal a shift in thinking of some sort (though the precise contours of this shift, if any, remain unclear). Regardless of the Australian/US intent or lack thereof behind these shifting words, both China and Taiwan presumably noticed these changes. And based on what one hears regularly from Chinese and Taiwanese officials, it stands to reason that Taipei would have seen these changes as net negatives, while Beijing would have taken some solace from the slightly softening Australian and US language on Taiwan.

But beyond these rhetorical tweaks, perhaps the most consequential element of the 2022 AUSMIN language on Taiwan relates to what might prima facie seem like one of the most unremarkable parts of the paragraph. Consistent with a slew of other Australian and US government messages, AUSMIN 2022 reaffirmed “shared opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo.” As I’ve argued previously, support for the status is shaping up as one of the core elements of the Albanese government’s Taiwan policy. It’s a position that ministers regularly reiterate and which the Prime Minister himself emphasised in response to a question on 3 December in relation to the bipartisan Australian parliamentary visit to Taiwan.

On one level, support for the status quo is a convenient shorthand for Australia, the United States, and other likemindeds. It allows them to express their opposition to China’s escalation, including economic coercion, military intimidation, and international isolation efforts. It also sends a signal to Taipei that it shouldn’t seek to change the status quo by declaring de jure independence. But as I’ve suggested previously, the problem with the status quo is that it’s inherently rubbery. The status quo is constantly changing because of actions and developments on all sides. China is changing the status quo via a wide range of grey zone tactics, while shifting public opinion in Taiwan is also arguably an organic evolution of the status quo. At the same time, the United States and its allies and partners are changing the status quo through their more active diplomacy in aide of Taiwan, among other measures.

As a result of the dynamism of the status quo, support for it might not send strong signals of either deterrence or reassurance to either Beijing or Taipei. As China shifts the cross-Strait military, diplomatic, and economic environment in its favour, status quo language could plausibly be interpretated as support for circumstances that are by many metrics increasingly advantageous for Beijing, thereby doing the opposite of reassuring Taipei. But equally, as Taiwanese identity and politics evolve, support for the status quo could fail to reassure Beijing. It could plausibly be interpreted by the Chinese government as support for increasingly independence-inclined Taiwanese political movements. Just as it might not reassure, support for the status quo might also fail to deter both revisionist plans in Beijing and any possible push for de jure independence in Taipei. Because the status quo is changing month-to-month and year-to-year, support for it doesn’t give either Beijing or Taipei a clear sense what Canberra, Washington, and other capitals won’t accept.

So, what should Canberra (and Washington and other capitals) say? To more clearly signal their opposition to both China’s escalatory actions and any move towards de jure independence for Taiwan, there’s a case for being clearer about the kinds of cross-Strait developments to which Australia and the United States (and others) are opposed. AUSMIN 2021’s opposition to “threats or coercion” points in the right direction. Rather than the vague notion of “unilateral changes to the status quo,” the 2021 language provides a much clearer sense of what won’t be accepted. But to reassure and deter both Beijing and Taipei, there’s a case for an even clear articulation. I might be overly earnest, and what follows might be overegged, but it strikes me there’d be benefit in messaging along these lines:

“The Secretaries and Ministers reaffirmed their steadfast support for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. They remain strongly opposed to any threats or coercion, whether via military intimidation, diplomatic pressure, trade restrictions, disinformation, or other measures. Consistent with their respective one-China policies, they equally do not support any changes to Taiwan’s current legal status.”

This formulation is, I’m sure, far form perfect. But it’s tentatively offered as an example of an option that avoids the ambiguity of support for the status quo and (hopefully) simultaneously deters and reassures both China and Taiwan.

Thanks, and talk again in 2023

Before the end of the final newsletter for 2022, I thought I’d offer a few thanks. It’s less analysis and more personal indulgence. But if you’ve made it to the end of the last newsletter for the year, I figure you’ll allow it. First, thank you to all the Australian and overseas officials, academics, think-tankers, businesspeople, journalists, and others who’ve debated Australia-China relations and China’s statecraft with me over the years. Although any and all errors in this newsletter are my own responsibility alone, the analysis here would be much poorer without the discussions that I’ve had with countless sharp minds and savvy observers. No researcher ever really works alone. Even if, like me, many of us spend countless hours locked away in home offices, we’re constantly reacting and responding to and learning from the work of others. So, thank you to all the analysts of Australia-China relations out there.

Thanks especially to my colleagues and collaborators at the Australian National University. Your wise counsel, regular shoutouts, shrewd suggestions, and encouragement have played a big part in keeping this newsletter going. Public debates about China are often bruising, but I’m fortunate to work among a great group of considered and considerate scholars. More than anyone else though, I owe a massive debt of gratitude to my brilliant boss and colleague, Professor Anthea Roberts. She really is the sine qua non of this newsletter. Without the absolute academic freedom and professional and personal support she’s given me, BCB wouldn’t exist. So, it’s no exaggeration to say that if you’ve ever derived any benefit at all from this newsletter, it’s as much thanks to Anthea as it is to me.

Last, but certainly not least, thank you for reading. As much as I love Australian foreign policy wonkery and analysis of Australia-China relations, I wouldn’t be writing this newsletter without an audience. BCB is still a technologically minimalist and analytically niche publication. And let’s be honest, it’ll probably always be both of those things. Still, it’s been humbling and heartening to see it grow. I started writing BCB in May 2021 with next-to-zero expectations of what it might become. Some 50 editions and 83,000 words later, it’s read by parliamentarians, diplomats, military officers, intelligence professionals, investment bankers, hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, academics, and journalists around the globe. Thank you for following along for the ride. I wouldn’t be doing this without you. Please keep your thoughts and suggestions coming, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you ever think I’ve missed the mark on anything. Enjoy the final few weeks of 2022, and I look forward to reconnecting sometime in the 2nd half of January next year. In the meantime, stay safe, and look after each other.

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.