Opinion Paul Bongiorno: Australia left clueless in Cornwall when it comes to China

Paul Bongiorno: Australia left clueless in Cornwall when it comes to China

G7 summit highlights tensions between Australia and China
Scott Morrison’s trip failed to resolve any long-term issues with China, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: TND
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Scott Morrison went to the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall looking for friends as relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner, China, continue to deteriorate.

If the purpose was to pressure Beijing sufficiently enough to resume the lucrative trade in wine, barley, beef and seafood and to safeguard our export of commodities particularly iron ore and coal, then the trip was a failure.

Worse than that, Australia led the pack in embracing US President Joe Biden’s sabre rattling against China – no doubt urged on by Britain’s Boris Johnson.

Mr Johnson gatecrashed a planned one-on-one meeting with the new American president Mr Morrison thought he had in the bag before he left home.

According to the post-meeting briefings the main topic, indeed the exclusive focus was the Indo Pacific and the threat an aggressive China is posing to Washington’s hitherto unrivalled supremacy in the region.

US President Joe Biden and his wife Jill are greeted by British PM Boris Johnson at the G7 Summit. Mr Johnson gatecrashed Scott Morrison’s meeting with Mr Biden.

Even before the leaders of the world’s seven richest democracies left the British seaside resort, Mr Morrison announced Australia would be joining a British strike carrier group in naval exercises in the South China Sea.

Though Britannia no longer rules the waves, Mr Johnson’s nostalgia for the empire of old has seen him dispatch his new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region.

How this show of military hardware reinforces Australia and the G7’s vow to confront China’s economic coercion is beyond many, and a worry for our exporters.

One of the least impressed is the premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan.

He is appalled by the federal government’s war talk restated by the Prime Minister in a key speech given in Perth before he left on his overseas trip.

It’s not surprising, given that WA accounts for a lion’s share of our lucrative commodities exports to China.

The Premier told journalists “all this language I see come out of the Commonwealth government about us going to war with China, I have never heard something so insane in my life”.

Mr McGowan queried why Australia would attack our biggest customer to whom we sell 20 times as many products as we buy from them “I don’t get”.

Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong provided Mr Morrison with some wise advice. Photo: AP

Nor does one of the most influential leaders in Asia, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In what one diplomatic source says was an unusually extremely blunt warning to Mr Morrison at their joint news conference, Mr Lee gave the PM a lesson in international political realities.

Mr Lee conceded China was one of the biggest questions for every major power in the world, but it’s not going away.

“It [China] is going to be a substantial presence,” the Singaporean leader said.

“You don’t have to become like them, neither can you make them become like you.”

The real sting was in the tail.

Mr Lee said “there will be rough spots and you will have to deal with that. But deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going and not issues which add up to an adversary which you are trying to suppress.”

Mr Morrison spun many of the outcomes of the G7 meeting as everyone agreeing with him.

He was claiming leadership on more investigation into the possible Wuhan lab origin of the coronavirus and for the need to reform the World Trade Organisation as a way of bringing China into line.

After the bruising Australia has suffered on these issues, why he wouldn’t be content to leave it to Mr Biden is baffling.

Surely the biggest lesson the Trump trade war with China and the retaliation sparked by Canberra’s outspokenness is that our great ally in Washington is happy to stand by us rhetorically, but even happier to fill the market vacuum left by our products being banned.

The final G7 communique according to a number of experts is less bellicose than Mr Biden was pushing for, which suggests the others with the possible exception of Mr Johnson would rather lower the temperature than raise it.

Surely a more deft approach from the Australian Prime Minister is needed – just ask our farmers, universities and tourism operators who are all sweating on a return to a pre-pandemic world.

To get there the nation needs a government keeping it safer through more  effective vaccine delivery and quarantine arrangements and, without doubt, a more sophisticated accommodation of the new world order where Britain and the United States are no longer predominant.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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