OPINION

Do we really think we can bluff China?

China's deputy head of mission Wang Xining, centre, with journalist Michael Smith at the launch of the China Story Yearbook 2020: Crisis. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
China's deputy head of mission Wang Xining, centre, with journalist Michael Smith at the launch of the China Story Yearbook 2020: Crisis. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Minister Wang Xining, second in charge at the Chinese embassy in Canberra, is no simple, time-serving bureaucrat.

Last Wednesday he helped launch the ANU's China Story Yearbook 2020 - titled simply Crisis - and gave a bravura performance, demonstrating just how effectively he controls and manipulates any message he is seeking to convey.

At different moments we saw Wang outraged, disappointed and stunned, because Australia has prevented Huawei from participating - even tendering - for the National Broadband Network. Then came the diplomat Wang, anodyne and bland, listening but uncompromising, insistently reiterating his point. And finally (yet crucially - for anyone who was prepared to listen) we were treated to the negotiating, open Wang, a person listening for compromise and prepared to make a deal.

Such subtlety and complexity was apparently all too much for our Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.

Instead of listening and grasping at the possibility of reopening communications, just a couple of hours later she deliberately and pointedly slammed the door shut on any possibility of rapprochement. Instead of picking up on the possibility of restarting negotiations with a government that won't even bother taking her phone calls, she deliberately chose that particular moment to needlessly and provocatively announce the government would scrap Victoria's bizarre agreement to participate in China's massive Belt and Road project.

Now it's true Daniel Andrews' insistence on signing this treaty offers a crisp example of how a Premier, preforming well on the local stage, transforms into a clown attempting to take on a major role after a couple of good reviews on Spring Street. Overcome with hubris and puffed-up self-importance, he suddenly thought it might be a good idea to pretend he was a player in the international arena. Critically, however, - and this is the crucial point - after that brief moment of glory, nothing happened - and it was never going to. What counted was attitude in The Lodge: no major corporation was ever going to thumb its nose at the Prime Minister. So the agreement languished, hanging in no man's land, waiting for Godot.

Normally, if Foreign Affairs has spent a long time considering doing something (as it always does), it acts in the morning. This time, however, its announcement came in the afternoon, all seemingly part of a sudden, knee-jerk reaction just moments after Wang's broad-ranging and open speech. Any possibility of dialogue, however remote, was immediately shut down, and you'd need to be pretty dull not to connect the two events. The camouflage (scrapping two other ignored agreements, with Iran and a Syrian government which no longer exists) fooled no one. This sent a message, a tit-for-tat and a needless insistence on further rupturing the breach between the two countries.

Normally we naturally assume our government is acting in Australia's interests. Sometimes it's difficult to see how. China is engaged in demolishing the previously accepted "rules" of international behaviour. Ignoring this challenge and thinking we can coerce Beijing will prove a futile endeavour. The vital element is to listen. Canberra needs to find some way in which it can, without giving anything away, begin to rebuild the relationship. This current government simply seems determined to pick away at the scab until it bleeds.

The China Story Yearbooks have detailed the remorseless deterioration of the relationship since Malcolm Turnbull began pushing back, a path international affairs analyst Graeme Dobell traces back to a little-known speech he gave in London in 2011, later amplified as prime minister in a speech in Singapore in 2017. The now ex-PM's thesis may have been correct, however it was delivered with his usual disregard for polite convention. Since then Scott Morrison has chosen never to take a back step, calling (pointlessly) for investigations into Covid's origins and doing nothing to attempt to repair the relationship with our biggest trading partner. Nobody wins.

This government has become a card player with a dodgy hand insisting they're actually holding a full house. The problem is the other player won't fold. At some point its cards will have to be revealed. The time for bluffing is over - it's time to make a deal.

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What's currently lacking is the understanding that can help us glide over the current problems. This is where a longer-range view is vital, and there are few better (and easy to read) guides than the ones offered in Beijing Bureau, a wonderful new book edited by former China correspondents Trevor Watson and Melissa Roberts.

It's made up of excellent chapters, contributed by 25 Aussie correspondents who witnessed everything: from the siege of Peking in 1900 to the opening of regular bureaus in 1972 through to Tienanmen and the final departure of the remaining correspondents last year.

The key insight such an analysis contributes, however, isn't some dry cataloguing of dates and events. Each chapter reveals more about the differences in everyday life and thought and the massive gulf in experience between society in China and life here.

It's invidious to single out any of the contributors, precisely because what makes the tapestry of this book so informative is the pattern that emerges from the weave. If we are to deal with Beijing - and we must - we need to understand how things work over there. That's something no travel guide can ever provide.

It's only by comprehending the role of the party (Richard McGregor), the people (Stephen McDonell), the past (Yvonne Preston) and current pressures in the relationship (Mike Smith, the last Aussie correspondent to leave Shanghai) that Australia will ever manage to move past the current roadblock.

China occupies the perpetual present. The structures regulating its society are so huge, so massive, that understanding the way life actually "works" in a place that is so different will be the key to moving the relationship forward.

During his speech Wang opened the door to the possibility of journalists for Australian media outlets returning to Beijing. Possibly nothing is more important. Ignorance is unforgivable.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.
This story Do we really think we can bluff China? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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