Toned-down comments from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison about relations with China earlier this week were “confusing,” observers and analysts said, but could indicate the start of a turnaround in frayed relations between the two countries.
On Monday, Morrison commended China for lifting its citizens out of poverty and said the competition between China and the United States had “heavily clouded and distorted” Beijing’s perception that Canberra had taken sides with Washington.
He had previously maintained Australia would stand firm against China and not trade away its “values” against perceived economic coercion since the conflict between the two countries started in April, only to be seen to change his tone in the online speech to the British think tank, Policy Exchange.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, said the double meanings in Morrison’s speech, particularly when he recommitted Australia to its “enduring alliance with the US” anchored in a “shared world view, liberal democratic values and market-based economic model” were confusing.
Do we too regard China as a ‘whole of society threat’? The last time I checked, I understood China to be a vital regional partner
“Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in June – on China his government had done nothing to injure that partnership. This week, he attributed worsening tensions to ‘some misunderstandings’, to be precise, China’s misunderstandings,” Laurenceson said.
“At the same time, he said this week the US alliance was ‘anchored in our shared world view’. How can this be so when the US view of the world is now dominated by perceptions of China being a ‘whole-of-society threat’? No wonder the Chinese embassy in Canberra is confused.
“Do we too regard China as a ‘whole of society threat’? The last time I checked, I understood China to be a vital regional partner.”
Some observers and social media commentators saw Morrison’s remarks as a somewhat disingenuous attempt to hedge his bets.
China, however, seemed to warm to the comments about the global influence of China’s economic growth after a war of words between the two over the last few weeks.
“China noticed Prime Minister Morrison’s positive comments on the global influence of China’s economic growth and China’s poverty alleviation efforts,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Tuesday.
“We also hope all countries will reject ideological bias … On China-Australia relations, we hope Australia will make independent, objective, sensible choices that serve its own interests.”
Morrison also implored China and the US to show more latitude to smaller countries, like Australia, so they do not have to choose between superpowers.
He added that he found it hard “to understand the mind of China and their outlook” when asked what could be done to persuade China to obey rules-based systems, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, over the South China Sea dispute, as it sought to expand its dominance.
“The word that springs to mind is disingenuous,” said Jane Golley, director of the Australian Centre on China in the World. “A case in point is our supposed shared commitment with the US to a market-based economic model, except when they resort to punishing China and manipulating global markets in their favour, for which we suffer in turn.”
Others, such as Zhou Fangyin, a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies, saw Morrison’s change in tone as being linked to the power transition in Washington.
Priya Chacko, a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Adelaide, agreed but added that such a move was not groundbreaking, with Australian foreign minister Marise Payne applying that strategy during her visit to the US in July, although it did nothing to soothe relations between China and Australia.
The revelation of fresh threats in Morrison’s speech were more concerning, Chacko argued.
“The multiple mentions of the word ‘containment’ in the speech was interesting and seemed vaguely threatening in that the context was along the lines of ‘as long as states, that is, China, abides by the rules-based order, meaning US-led rules based order, containment won’t be necessary’,” she said.
“The repeated reference to the [World Trade Organization] was also interesting and suggests that perhaps the government is preparing to use it to contest some of China’s trade sanctioning. I don’t think this will do much to ameliorate the tensions.”
The private sector, meanwhile, viewed the speech as a change that could backfire, as even though it might open up dialogue, Beijing was unlikely to forget easily.
Morrison will have to prove that Australia can recapture lost ground and not let it slide again
“Morrison will have to prove that Australia can recapture lost ground and not let it slide again,” said Roland Hinterkoerner, finance executive and founder of China consultancy Expertise Asia.
“Politicians tend to pander to certain parts of their constituency [for votes], but for the sake of carrying Washington’s water, exposing the entire country to Beijing’s wrath has been irresponsible in my view.”
Former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr agreed that a great amount of diplomatic investment would be needed to restore the relationship and overcome the “abrasion and loose rhetoric” of the past three years.
He cited Australia’s pursuit of an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus without telling Beijing first and the appointment of “anti-China zealots” to Canberra’s China advisory committees as anti-China gestures.
Earlier this week, Carr told the South China Morning Post that Australia had abandoned diplomacy in its dealings with China, so Morrison’s more “relaxed language” was welcomed.
It captures the fact Australians see our China relationship as an irreplaceable economic opportunity. It talks up a common interest in the well-being of all of Asia
“It captures the fact Australians see our China relationship as an irreplaceable economic opportunity. It talks up a common interest in the well-being of all of Asia,” Carr added on Wednesday in an email response to Morrison’s latest comments.
Bert Hofman, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University Singapore, felt Morrison’s words were a step in the right direction, especially indicating a desire not to choose between China and US, thus emulating countries like Singapore which have been successful when adopting that specific diplomatic tack.
“Morrison’s well-crafted speech balances praise of China’s achievements and contributions with Australia’s commitments to a rule-based international system and alliances,” he said.
The freshly signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that puts China and Australia in the same trade club could also have played a part in Morrison’s change in tone, Hofman said, after the 15-nation deal was signed at the end of last week.
In the meantime, China’s unofficial bans on Australia exports remain, and on Wednesday, Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesman Zhao said many Australian coal imports had failed to meet environmental standards, with dozens of Australian shipments continuing to wait outside Chinese ports for permission to unload.
“China follows laws and regulations. We need to strengthen inspections of imported coal for better environmental protection,” Zhao added.
China has unofficially banned Australian coal imports since October and has since been buying more coal from Mongolia and Russia. The latest China customs data also showed it imported only 26 per cent of its coking coal from Australia in October, a drop from a 30 per cent share in September and record 78 per cent in March.
China has also banned imports of sugar, barley, lobsters, wine, copper and log timber since the start of November, while conducting an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine after imposing anti-dumping duties on barley earlier this year. China also suspended beef imports from five major meat processing plants in Queensland and New South Wales in May.
Additional reporting by Jun Mai
More from South China Morning Post: