Australia’s long-established bipartisan approach to relations with our biggest trading partner China is at breaking point.
In a major speech on Monday, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of playing short-term party politics and of endangering our national interest.
Senator Wong said Mr Morrison lacks a long-term plan with no new ideas or solutions on how to handle the strategic competition between the United States and China.
She said the PM’s recent speech to the Lowy Institute on foreign policy was “disturbingly lightweight”.
Senator Wong says the government is breaking with convention by ignoring her request for high-level briefings on China from our diplomats and the Office of National Intelligence.
Labor, Senator Wong says, wants to engage on China in a bipartisan way, but the government has no such motivation.
She says the breakdown in trust and co-operation with the Coaltion comes at a time when we are entering into a fundamentally new relationship with Beijing.
Her criticism emerges as our intelligence agencies are increasingly concerned about the Asian giant’s influence and penetration of our universities and their research programs.
It also comes at a time when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who is responsible for security, has revived the language of the cold war by attacking the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Mr Dutton’s outspokenness on Friday forced Mr Morrison into clumsy damage control at the weekend, trying to deny what his colleague and erstwhile leadership rival had said.
In what was an unprecedented public attack from a serving Australian minister, Mr Dutton accused the CCP of engineering cyber attacks on Australian targets, stealing intellectual property and muzzling free speech.
Diplomacy is essential to successful statecraft; a measure of Mr Dutton’s failure is the strident rebuttal from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.
It accused him of “anti-China rhetoric” and harming “the mutual trust” and betraying the “common interests of the two peoples”.
Mr Morrison told reporters he “didn’t tend to overreact to statements” and that the relationship will always “remain positive because we’ve always focused on what we agree on and that benefits our country”.
Except that’s exactly what Peter Dutton didn’t do.
And indeed in his Chicago speech, Senator Wong says Mr Morrison gave China every reason to believe we were “actually being a pawn of the United States”.
And indeed that is how the Chinese Embassy responded.
The PM sided with Donald Trump in his beef with Beijing over trade, abandoned quiet diplomacy for the megaphone, and was recklessly oblivious to how China would react to his definition of it as a “newly developed” nation.
No one, including Senator Wong, disputes that China is an authoritarian state but she says “we should not reflexively and pre-emptively frame China only as a threat”.
I have written to @MarisePayne to request that relevant agencies, such as @dfat & the Office of National Intelligence, brief parliamentarians about our relationship with China. We must ensure discussion on our relationship with China is mature, sensible & calm. pic.twitter.com/EEvM6oLZlf
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) August 18, 2019
She says we should carefully define “the boundaries in our engagement” with Beijing”.
The fact is China will not just go away.
This is not the 1950s.
Unlike Soviet Russia, China is an economic super power increasingly active in our region.
And if Mr Trump’s handling of the Kurds and Syria is anything to go by, the US will not put the interests of its allies ahead of its own.
There may be a hint of that in regard to China.
Also on the weekend President Trump announced something of a thaw in his trade war.
China will now buy $40 to $50 billion worth of agricultural products from the US in exchange for a pause on threatened tariff hikes.
What that means for our farmers is a question Mr Morrison couldn’t answer.
His favourite tactic of blaming Labor for everything is already wearing thin.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics