Inside Story

Journalists on the ramparts

Has the press gallery forgotten we’re not at war with China?

Hamish McDonald 20 May 2020 1668 words

Collateral damage? World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom. File photo/Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP

Another triumph for Canberra and the Morrison government’s deft and resolute diplomacy, it would seem. Support for an inquiry into Covid-19 from more than half of the 194 countries at this week’s World Health Assembly in Geneva was “a major strategic victory for Australia.”

So declared a story by two members of the Sydney Morning Herald’s press gallery bureau based on “sources familiar with the negotiations” over the draft resolution.

Once again, Australia saves the world. Yet a closer examination of the emerging resolution, which Chinese president Xi Jinping also supported, reveals it to be nothing like as strong as the original proposal from Scott Morrison’s office.

Recall 22 April, when multiple news outlets carried reports from their Canberra correspondents that Australia was calling for reform of the World Health Organization. If necessary, went the plan, independent investigators would be given “weapons inspector powers” to investigate the source of disease outbreaks.

“Just got off the phone with US President @realDonaldTrump,” Morrison tweeted the same day. “We had a very constructive discussion on our health responses to #COVID19 and the need to get our market-led and business-centred economies up and running again.”

But almost immediately it became clear that Canberra was way out on its own. Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and other leaders phoned by Morrison demurred at the timing and nature of the proposal.

China already had its hackles up after foreign minister Marise Payne’s earlier floating of an “independent investigation,” which a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman described as “political manoeuvring.”

In terms of its likely passage and acceptance, Morrison’s inspections proposal was preposterous. The veteran diplomat John McCarthy called it a “nice hoary bellow from our domestic political ramparts” but “a policy mistake.” Rod Barton, one of the former weapons inspectors in Iraq, pointed out flaws in the analogy. He might have added that the inspectors’ reports about Saddam Hussein’s evident lack of weapons of mass destruction were ignored by Washington, London and Canberra in the 2003 rush to war.

Back to the Canberra press gallery, though, and its role in helping whip up a crisis out of a bad brainstorm in the prime minister’s office. On 26 April, the Australian Financial Review’s Andrew Tillett interviewed the Chinese ambassador, Cheng Jingye, who elaborated the foreign ministry view. “Some guys are attempting to blame China for their own problems and deflect the attention,” he said. “The proposition is obviously teaming up with those forces in Washington to launch a political campaign against China.”

This was not yet a story. As Jocelyn Chey, a former Australian consul-general in Hong Kong now at Western Sydney University, has pointed out, Tillett then pushed and pushed Cheng with a series of “What if?” questions. Finally the ambassador conceded that if Australia came across as hostile to China, its public might reconsider buying Australian wine or beef, travelling here, or sending their children to our universities.

This threat of “trade retaliation” then blew up into a major theme of Canberra politics the following week. And instead of cool rationality, a wave of patriotic flag-waving took hold of senior members of the press gallery, urged on by China hawks in Canberra’s military-industrial circles.

The latter notably include Peter Jennings, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, financed by the defence department, military suppliers including Lockheed Martin, BAE, Northrop Grumman, Thales and Raytheon, and the governments of Japan and Taiwan. It was time for Australia to diversify its trade away from China, he wrote. Just like that.

Business leaders and vice-chancellors who tried to point out that the finger-pointing at China could have economic consequences were derided as traitorous. They “can’t handle the truth” about China, said Channel Nine’s Chris Uhlmann. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher described Cheng’s rather mild words as “gangsterism.”

“Cheng’s warning laid bare what those in political, diplomatic and foreign affairs circles have always known about the regime in Beijing,” wrote the Australian Financial Review’s Phillip Coorey. “It was a glass-jawed bully that viewed bilateral relations as one-way affairs that should be skewed in Beijing’s interest.”

Iron ore tycoon Andrew Forrest’s springing of a Chinese consul on a press conference with health minister Greg Hunt, “followed by a similar attempt at appeasement” by Kerry Stokes (who has the Caterpillar machinery franchise for China), “came as no surprise to those in the know,” wrote Coorey.

As James Curran, Sydney University’s specialist on the US alliance, observed, “It is one thing to be rightfully wary of the brand of Chinese exceptionalism espoused by Xi Jinping, quite another to thrash about in mouth-foaming fulmination.”

Whether Beijing was already planning trade retaliation when Cheng gave the interview we may never know. Its commerce ministry always has a grievance up its sleeve, as it showed when Canada’s pork and canola exports were blocked soon after the arrest of a senior Huawei executive in Vancouver.

But act it did, putting an 80 per cent penalty tariff on Australian barley as punishment for the alleged use of subsidies barred by the World Trade Organization and suspending certification of four large abattoirs. Effectively, Australia has lost some $900 million a year in barley exports to China and a large portion of its $2.6 billion in beef exports.

If anything, the China hawks in the press gallery doubled down. The Herald’s Hartcher praised Morrison’s assertion that “we are standing our ground on our values and the things that we know are always important. And those things are not to be traded. Ever.” Hartcher then noted that some business leaders and state governments were urging Canberra to use diplomacy and pragmatism to protect the trading relationship. “And, of course, when a business person calls for ‘pragmatism,’ the word used this week by Elders chief executive Mark Allison, he is calling for the abandonment of principle,” he added.

There’s been nothing in Canberra reporting to suggest that this loss of trade might have been the fault of Morrison, a close circle of advisers inherited from Tony Abbott, or the hawkish think-tankers and journalists who believe defence strategy can somehow be pursued without reference to the economy.

As the editorial board of the Australian National University’s East Asia Forum, headed by trade expert Peter Drysdale, noted, there was already “furious agreement” — including from Beijing — about the need for an investigation of Covid-19.

“The question has been about the nature and the timing of an inquiry, as well as the febrile international political context into which the Australian idea was lobbed,” the EAF board said. “There was no developed Australian proposal. There was no consultation with regional neighbours or partners, and they, not only China, were bemused at Australian guilelessness in spearheading a Washington-touted idea.”

Canberra had thus isolated itself from the region. “Later back-pedalling to distance Australia’s stumble-bum diplomacy on the crisis from the venal re-election politics of the Trump administration convinces no one but its proponents,” the board said. These evidently include some senior press gallery figures.

The burying of differences in Geneva this week, which produced a WHO-led inquiry with existing powers when the emergency subsides — a goal a properly advised Morrison might have seen as the only realistic one — doesn’t mean harmony is restored.

Trump is clearly out to scapegoat China for his own mishandling of the pandemic as he approaches the November elections. Poking Beijing further on trade and technology has already started.

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping will hold the delayed meetings of his rubber-stamp congresses in coming days facing new questions about his ability to hold power beyond the previously normal two five-year terms. The Covid-19 shutdown means near-zero economic growth in China this year, the first such falter (barring the Tiananmen blip) since the Mao Zedong era. Xi also faces a rebellious Hong Kong and a Taiwan with its standing enhanced by its early intelligence on the Wuhan outbreak and its effective preventive measures.

Climbing out of recession means China will continue to rely on raw materials from Australia. Its only alternative sources are on the Atlantic seaboard, and already iron ore prices are shooting up. It’s in what former Howard government minister and long-time China trade-fixer Warwick Smith calls China’s “discretionary spends” — processed foods, education, tourism and other services — that further retaliation could come.

If China does make the transition to a consumption-led economy, these sectors will be a source of high-income jobs for Australians. They are worth pursuing at least as much as other emerging consumer markets. Rather than preparing for war or butting directly against Chinese communism, Smith advocates “patience, no quick judgements, and no emotionalism.” Which doesn’t make a good media story.

Instead of constantly looking for what “the Chinese” are up to, our journalists could take a step back and learn some lessons from this latest episode. They could go to Hartcher’s own recent Quarterly Essay, Red Flag, which concluded with the reasonable point that despite the pervasiveness of China’s political influence-buying efforts and its United Front Work within the diaspora, Australians can have faith in their institutions’ capacity to resist subversion by a regime that, unlike the Soviet Union of the 1940s, has no local following.

They could consider that the 1.2 million people of Chinese descent in Australia came here mostly to get away from the People’s Republic, not replicate it. They, and the 230,000 students normally resident here, are a threat more to the communist system than ours, especially if we upgrade the student experience. (Melbourne University’s Fran Martin has found that a majority go home disappointed, not having made Australian friends.)

They could consider that our own expertise, along with that of friends like the United States, Canada, Europe, South Korea, Japan and Israel, at least keeps us up with the level of cyber espionage coming out of China and Russia.

In short, we are not at war and we don’t need to match the “patriotic” journalism of Beijing’s intemperate Global Times. •