Fortnight of 20 March to 2 April 2023

The Easter long weekend and teaching commitments delayed the publication of this edition. The edition covering the period 3-16 April will still be published early next week (all going well).

China’s CPTPP disinformation

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Mao Ning answering a question on 31 March about Taiwan’s potential accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP):

“As to the Taiwan region’s accession to the CPTPP, our position is very clear. There is only one China in the world, and the Taiwan region is an inalienable part of China. The one-China principle is a universally recognized norm in international relations and a prevailing consensus among the international community. We firmly oppose any official interaction between countries and the Taiwan region and firmly oppose the Taiwan region’s accession to any agreement or organization of official nature.”

Quick take:

This is another sign of a looming battle over whether CPTPP members should back Beijing’s or Taipei’s bids. With the UK entry into the trade agreement now confirmed, both China and Taiwan will almost certainly ramp up their efforts to join. As well as the CPTTP’s elevation in the Chinese government’s 2023 Work Report last month, the Taiwanese government has apparently already renewed its push for support with New Zealand. Although I haven’t seen any indications of similar approaches to Australia, presumably it’s just a matter of time before both Taipei and Beijing start lobbying Canberra publicly. Considering that Beijing wants to both prosecute its bid and block Taipei’s accession, these competing CPTPP campaigns are likely to lead to an especially hard choice for Canberra. (For more on the messy cost-benefit equation for Australia as it weighs China’s and Taiwan’s bids, see the last edition.)

But beyond the difficult decision point, this CPTPP competition is especially consequential considering the way in which the Chinese government is using disinformation about one-China policies to keep Taiwan out. Beijing claims that the Taiwanese government isn’t entitled to join groupings like the CPTPP because the world shares China’s view that Taiwan is simply part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These kinds of Chinese government arguments are part of a global and concerted push to convince governments and publics that they are committed to Beijing’s preferred one-China principle. Among other consequences, this means that foreign governments should curtail their engagement with Taiwan, including by not welcoming Taipei into groupings like the CPTPP. Of course, these claims misrepresent the supposed international support for China’s preferred one-China principle, gloss over the diversity of one-China policies, and ignore how commonplace it is for free trade agreements and other groupings to include entities that aren’t recognised as de jure sovereign states. But regardless, Beijing seems intent on keeping Taipei out of the CPTPP by marshalling disinformation about the limited legitimate scope that countries have to engage with Taiwan.

More narrowly from an Australian perspective, China’s disinformation effort vis-à-vis Taiwan’s CPTPP membership is yet another example of the Chinese government’s attempt to recast Canberra’s one-China policy as a version of Beijing’s one-China principle. On top of an extensive record of misleading MFA messaging, China has used op-eds in the Australian press to suggest that Canberra is committed to Beijing’s view that Taiwan is simply a province of the PRC. In The Australian Financial Review last year and The Sydney Morning Herald last month, the Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian laundered versions of the false claim that the Australian government is “obliged to stick to its commitment to the one-China principle, both in words and in deeds, in name and in essence, with sincerity, without discount.” (For those interested, I responded to both of these op-eds in the respective newspapers here and here.) So, not only is Beijing trying to keep Taipei out of the CPTPP, but it’s trying to execute that exclusion by convincing Australia that it is committed to the view that Taiwan is simply a province of the PRC and thereby circumscribe Canberra’s right to deepen its formal trade ties with the island.

Addendum: At the risk of labouring the point, the Chinese government’s characterisations of the CPTPP and Australia’s one-China policy are misleading. Per Article 5 of the CPTPP agreement, there is nothing to prohibit a customs territory like Taiwan (or specifically the separate customs territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu) form joining. Meanwhile, Australia maintains a one-China policy and has never endorsed the view that Taiwan is a province of the PRC. It is therefore patently false to claim that the one-China principle, according to which Taiwan is part of the PRC, is the foundation of Australia-China relations. Per the 1972 joint communique establishing diplomatic relations between Australia and the PRC, Canberra acknowledged without ever endorsing Beijing’s view.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Mao Ning speaking on 31 March 2023 []

Deceptions in diaspora media

The English-language version of an article by Sydney Consul General Zhou Limin published in Australian Chinese Daily (澳洲新聞) on 3 April (available in Chinese on the Consulate-General and 澳洲新聞 websites):

“The One China principle is the consensus of the international community and the political foundation of China-Australia relations. China has no room for compromise or concession on the Taiwan question.”

Quick take:

Beijing is also seeking to inject its disinformation directly into the Chinese-language media environment in Australia. I’ll leave it to others to draw out the full implications of this and determine how commonplace these kinds of cases might be in the Chinese-language media. But as examples of Chinese government disinformation roaming Australia’s media landscape more broadly proliferate, I’m increasingly gravitating to the view that it warrants a stronger Australian government response.

To be sure, the Albanese government might understandably want to avoid getting into the business of directly responding to every instance of Beijing’s disinformation about Australia’s one-China policy. Given the regularity of Beijing’s efforts to foist its one-China principle on Canberra, such a whack-a-mole approach might mean taking issue with Chinese government messaging on a weekly basis. Directly responding to every instance of disinformation might also complicate the Australian government’s efforts to stabilise Australia-China relations. At a certain point, Beijing is likely to take serious issue with Canberra if the latter is issuing frequent public corrections in response to the Chinese government’s falsehoods.

But given the prominence of Chinese government disinformation, there is equally a danger in Canberra not saying more to correct the record. With Beijing utilising Australia’s free press to propagate falsehoods, Canberra risks letting the Chinese government define (at least for some readers) the contours of Australia’s one-China policy. Sure, researchers and commentators will write op-eds critiquing the Chinese government’s deceptions. But given that Australia’s one-China policy is the basis for Canberra’s engagement with both Beijing and Taipei, it’d be helpful if the Australian government took a more proactive approach to combatting the Chinese government’s disinformation.

Assuming that I’m not way off target with the above, what exactly might the Australian government do? Previously (e.g., here and here), I’ve sketched some options. Here’s an updated menu of responses that the Australian government might adopt:

  1. Use both ministerial speeches and talking points to more regularly reassert the latitude that Australia enjoys to engage with Taiwan and, where necessary, rebut the claim that Canberra shares Beijing’s preferred one-China principle.
  2. Update the Taiwan page on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website to directly debunk the claim that Australia is committed to the view that Taiwan is a province of the PRC. This page could also more fully and explicitly articulate the scope that Australia’s one-China policy allows for mutually beneficial engagement with Taiwan.
  3. Have ministers directly but calmly correct especially egregious and/or high-profile examples of Chinese government disinformation about Australia’s one-China policy.
  4. Given the complexities and subtleties of diplomatic communiques, publish and disseminate to the media and other stakeholders an official factsheet that unpacks the historical reasons for and contemporary relevance of Australia’s one-China policy.
  5. Reinforce to state, territory, and local governments and the private sector the freedom to engage with Taiwan that they continue to enjoy under Australia’s one-China policy.

Readers in the Australian government might think I’m overegging the seriousness of this issue. Sure, the response might go, the Chinese government spreads disinformation vis-à-vis Australia’s one-China policy, but it’s so clunky and uncompelling that it won’t win anyone over. I certainly don’t have comprehensive data pointing to the effectiveness of this Chinese government disinformation. (I’d welcome advice from any readers who have a more detail on this.) But for what it’s worth, the anecdotal evidence I come across in conversations with the private sector, the media, students, and the public suggests that Beijing’s disinformation is much more persuasive than one might imagine. It might not have seriously penetrated the Canberra bubble, but it seems to be shaping attitudes in the broader Australian community. For that reason, I tend to think that there’s a prima facie case for considering some of the above options.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou meets with Member of the House of Representatives Harry Jenkins on 19 November 2012 []

Australian ministerial visits to Taiwan

Australian ministerial visits to Taiwan at the level of Assistant Minister/Parliamentary Secretary and above in the years 1993-2022:

  • Minister for Trade and Competitiveness, Craig Emerson, Sep-12
  • Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, Jun/Jul-11
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Ronald Boswell, Oct-03
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Ronald Boswell, Nov-01
  • Minister for Trade, Mark Vaile, Feb-01
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Ronald Boswell, Nov-99
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Judith Troeth, Jun-99
  • Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, Nick Minchin, Apr-99
  • Minister for Resources and Energy, Warwick Parer, Sep-97
  • Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, John Anderson, Sep-96
  • Minister for Trade, Bob McMullan, Nov-95
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport, Neil O’Keefe, May-95
  • Minister for Tourism, Michael Lee, Jul-94
  • Minister for Trade, Peter Cook, Oct/Nov-93
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Nick Sherry, TBC-93

Quick take:

Before offering any analysis of the above, let me concede at the outset that this little database is very much a work in progress. It relies on the records of Australian ministerial visits to Taiwan available on the profile pages of former Australian parliamentarians, which are listed on the Australian Parliament House (APH) website. The above is unlikely to be complete and probably misses, for example, ministerial visits that were conducted discreetly and not publicised. I’d welcome any suggestions/tipoffs from readers of visits that I might have missed. Once it’s been more fully checked for accuracy, I’ll update this working tally and publish it again (likely here or as part of a different article or paper).

That caveat aside, the above tabulation highlights at least two key points. First, the decade between 2013 and 2022 has seen a dramatic collapse in the number of serving Australian ministers visiting Taiwan. Since the then Minister for Trade and Competitiveness Craig Emerson visited in September 2012, not one serving Australian minister appears to have visited Taiwan. This total lack of ministerial visits in the ten years up to 2022 contrasts dramatically with previous decades. In the ten years from 1993 to 2002, twelve visits took place—seven at the ministerial level and five at the level of Assistant Minister/Parliamentary Secretary. Then in the ten years from 2003 to 2012, three visits took place—two at the ministerial level and one at the level of Assistant Minister/Parliamentary Secretary.

The second noteworthy feature of this historical record is the significant shift in the terminology used to describe Australian ministerial visits to Taiwan. All the above visits up to and including Minister Ferguson’s June-July 2011 trip are described as “official visits/delegations to Taiwan.” Minister Emerson’s September 2012 visit is then described as an “unofficial visit” before ministerial visits cease entirely. The description on the APH website of pre-2012 ministerial visits to Taiwan as “official” is striking considering that Albanese government ministers and the DFAT website emphasise that Australia has an “unofficial relationship” with Taiwan.

These APH website descriptions of official ministerial visits are all the more conspicuous considering comments from the then First Assistant Secretary of DFAT’s North Asia Division and now Australia’s Ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, during Senate Estimates in 2010: “We do not have official relations with Taiwan and we do not have official visits to Taiwan. … There are never official visits by Australian ministers to Taiwan.” What explains this discrepancy between the APH website and the language used by ministers, senior officials, and the DFAT website? Has the APH website simply mislabelled past ministerial visits to Taiwan as “official”? Or has Australia’s nomenclature for describing its ties with Taiwan changed? Or am I simply misreading and/or misinterpreting something? I’m genuinely not sure and would welcome any suggestions.

One final quick thought bubble: The current preferred language of an “unofficial relationship” with Taiwan can be plausibly read as shorthand for ties that don’t imply recognition of de jure sovereignty. But using the dictionary definition of “official,” Australian public servants posted to Taiwan are indisputably there on official business on behalf of the Australian government and people. And many other forms of engagement between the Australian and Taiwanese governments are also official by the common usage of the term. The distinguishing feature of these kinds of interactions is arguably not that they are unofficial, but that they occur without the Australian government having formal state-to-state relations with Taiwan. Given how out of step the Australian government’s talk of an “unofficial relationship” is with common parlance, perhaps there’s a case for following the lead of the APH website pre-2012 and once again referring to Australia’s official engagement with Taiwan. But maybe to reassure China, it could be described using the modified formulation of an “official non-state relationship.” This would arguably both better reflect the breadth and depth of the official engagement between Australia and Taiwan, while also making plain that none of this entails that Australia recognises the Taiwanese government as a representative of a de jure sovereign state. As with the above questions about the changing terminology, I float this last point very, very, very tentatively. I’ll also write something in the coming months that hopefully unpacks and clarifies further some of these points. In the meantime, please send me your corrections and/or howls of objection.

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.