China’s ham-fisted effort in digitally altered diplomacy via an offensive tweet and the angry, instant reaction from the Prime Minister inevitably sparked a week of debate about proportionality.

Was it counter-productive for China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian to post an image of an Australian soldier slashing the throat of an Afghan child? Or did he achieve his desired result?

Was Scott Morrison’s furious response an appropriate defence of Australia’s national character? Or should he have left it to more junior figures to respond?

These questions are worth asking and debating but are ultimately about tactics. The bigger question, which remains unanswered is what, if anything, Australia can do to prevent this troubled relationship worsening in 2021.

How to prevent more Australian exporters being punished by China?

A sense of resignation has settled over this stand-off. A sense that we’re destined for further deterioration on the trade, diplomatic and strategic fronts. A sense that Australia cannot afford to give an inch; that conceding any ground would be an act of weakness and China would then steamroll us for a generation.

Perhaps this is all true. It’s clear Beijing wants more than an olive branch or a simply “change of tone”. China wants a concession of real substance to show the world who’s boss. As Deputy Ambassador to Australia Wang Xining told the ABC’s Stephen Dziedzic on Friday, “we would like to see concrete actions” from Australia.

China’s Position is Very Clear

The specific “actions” China wants from Australia are no secret. They are listed in a 14-point dossier of complaints helpfully prepared and disseminated by the Chinese Embassy.

They also happen to be non-negotiable issues for Australia. From foreign interference laws to the banning of Huawei from the 5G network, the Coalition and Labor agree Australia cannot back down on these matters of substance.

So, if the bipartisan consensus is that Australia cannot give ground to a bully on any of these fronts, what can it do?

Anthony Albanese says the Government “needs to have a strategy for dealing with this” relationship, without offering any suggestions as to what that strategy might involve. His colleagues say he’s talking more about helping Australian industries hurt by the trade sanctions, rather than mounting any sort of unrealistic attempt to change China’s behaviour.

There is, however, one big test coming which will tell us which way the Morrison Government wants to go. Does it want to further antagonise Beijing? Or holster its guns?

In the coming days, Parliament is expected to pass the Foreign Relations Bill, which will give the Commonwealth the power to veto agreements with foreign powers struck by state and local governments as well as universities. Once this power is in the hands of the Morrison Government, the question is, will it pull the trigger?

The Government has denied from the outset that China is the target of this bill, but no one is in any real doubt here, certainly not the cross-party group of China hawks known as the “Wolverines”.

Speaking in support of the bill in the Senate this week, Labor’s Kimberley Kitching referred to the Chinese Communist Party’s “neo-Stalinist domestic policies and belligerent and hegemonic behaviour in the international arena” to make her case. Fellow “Wolverine” Liberal Senator James Patterson said Victoria’s Belt & Road Initiative agreement with China is “one of the reasons this bill is necessary”.

Premier Daniel Andrews
Photo: Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at Tiananmen Square, Beijing – China.

Some in the opposition privately wonder if this bill was simply announced back in August to throw a bit of anti-China red meat to the electorate (and to divert attention away from the COVID aged care crisis at the time), but regardless, Labor supports the new Commonwealth power in principle.

Self-made Test

After some back and forth over amendments, the bill is set to pass before Parliament rises for the year. The Government, which has attached great urgency to the passage of this new law, will then have an opportunity to demonstrate which foreign agreements it intends to terminate.

The “Wolverines” are certainly hoping Victoria’s BRI deal is first on the chopping block.

Read Also: Australia’s New Veto Power Over its Every State’s Foreign Agreements

When Victorian Premier Dan Andrews entered this agreement with China two years ago, the Morrison Government was less troubled.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said the Government was “positive for Australian engagement in BRI, where those projects are sustainable projects that provide clear benefits for the recipients”. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said “we encourage the states and territories to expand opportunities with China”, and that states “make arrangements of this nature, at this level, regularly with other countries in this region and more broadly”.

Others were more concerned there hadn’t been adequate consultation with the Foreign Affairs Department. Federal Labor also didn’t think it was a good idea for the Andrews Government to enter such a deal.

Two years on, attitudes towards the BRI and China more broadly, have only hardened.

Within days the Morrison Government is likely to have the power to tear up this agreement. Will it take the opportunity to do so and risk inflaming the tense situation with Beijing even further? Or will it now quietly leave this new law in the bottom drawer for a while?

The Government won’t back down on China’s list of demands, but we’re about to find out whether it’s interested in calming things down with Beijing or ratcheting them up further.

It’s created this test for itself with the Foreign Relations Bill.

Author: David Speers, Host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV.
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of the editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.