Turnbull's grovelling mea culpa on China risks harming Australia
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Turnbull's grovelling mea culpa on China risks harming Australia

Malcolm Turnbull’s behaviour towards Beijing over the past nine months has been foolish, amateurish and potentially dangerous. Yet the spectacle of his grovelling mea culpa to Beijing in his speech on the China relationship at the University of NSW this week may well make matters worse. If the stakes weren’t so high, it would almost be comical. But what Turnbull’s China fiasco reveals most of all is how flawed his judgement can be on major matters of state which deeply affect the national interest.

So what actually happened? After then Labor senator Sam Dastyari fouled up badly towards the end of last year over conflicts of interest on his statements on the South China Sea, Turnbull came up with what he thought to be a seriously cunning plan. Languishing in the polls against Labor ever since the 2016 elections, Turnbull thought he could use the Dastyari affair to skewer Labor as a bunch of pro-pinko, “soft on China” Beijing appeasers.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with Chinese consul-general Gu Xiaojie and ambassador Jingye Cheng at UNSW on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with Chinese consul-general Gu Xiaojie and ambassador Jingye Cheng at UNSW on Tuesday.Credit:AAP

That’s when Turnbull launched his “anti-foreign interference” campaign which he targeted explicitly at Labor, the Australian Chinese community and the Chinese state - implying all three were somehow umbilically linked. He saw this as a great opportunity to achieve political mastery over Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, as well as shore up what was at that time his own shaky internal position within the Liberal Party. It was an opportunity to look seriously tough against what he hoped would be a vacillating Shorten. It failed spectacularly on multiple fronts.

Then to “cut through” the media clutter, Turnbull delivered his infamous national call to arms against the Chinese state by proclaiming, in his own appalling Chinese, that “the Australian people have now stood up”. I was in Beijing at the time speaking at an Australia China Chamber of Commerce dinner. The Chinese officials to whom I spoke during that visit had no idea what Turnbull was on about.

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But if a single public phrase was designed to cause maximum offence to the Chinese government, our Malcolm hit the nail right on the head. The phrase mimicked one purportedly used by Mao in October 1949 at the proclamation of the People’s Republic. Mao’s meaning then was that after 100 years of foreign occupation, from the Opium Wars, China was for the first time now standing on its own two feet. By parodying this phrase, Turnbull set out to publicly insult the Chinese government. And he succeeded. But all in pursuit of a grubby domestic political agenda.

The result was that China froze all bilateral ministerial-level meetings for the next nine months for the first time in the 46-year history of the diplomatic relationship. Australian universities began to feel pressure over the future of Chinese student enrolments. The Australian tourism industry began to panic the same might happen to them. The Australian business community began talking to anybody who would listen to “do something” to fix the relationship.

This brings us to Turnbull’s belated address to the University of NSW this week, ostensibly to talk about international education. After all the sabre rattling of his government over the last nine months, there was not a peep of criticism of China. Suddenly it's all sweetness and light. The loyalty of the Australian Chinese community of course was never in doubt. And there are multiple conciliatory phrases towards China that would have been explicitly agreed with the Chinese government prior to the speech being given, in order to unfreeze the relationship. This is confirmed by the positive remarks by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman straight after the Turnbull speech.

Former Labor senator Sam Dastyari.

Former Labor senator Sam Dastyari.Credit:Fiona Morris

But the speech also contains one giant policy concession that cabinet had previously explicitly ruled out. Turnbull now says the government will take part in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Personally, I don’t at this stage have a big problem with the initiative and have said so repeatedly. But the Australian cabinet some time ago in its wisdom decided otherwise and made that position public. The problem is that Turnbull has now allowed himself to be put into a political position in the China relationship where he not only had to engage in a humiliating backdown and agree to China’s preferred language in his statement, but on top of that he also had to offer a policy concession to save Chinese face.

My government had many policy disagreements with Beijing over the years - from human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang dissidents visiting Australia, Stern Hu’s legal rights, the 2009 Defence White Paper, rejecting Huawei’s participation in the NBN, refusing to approve the sales of Rio Tinto to Chinalco - but none of these resulted in a freeze in the relationship. That’s because we didn’t set out as a matter of deliberate policy to publicly insult the Chinese state. We simply went about prosecuting a relationship with Beijing which maximised our common interests and dealt frankly with the things upon which we disagreed. The relationship continued to prosper.

Turnbull’s foreign interference law has now been passed, after many Labor amendments, because the opposition believes our intelligence agencies should be properly resourced to deal with contemporary espionage in all its forms and from which ever country - though many of these problems could have been dealt with back in 2009 had  Turnbull not refused (as opposition leader) to pass my government’s legislation to ban all foreign political donations.

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Australia needs a strong, consistent, balanced China strategy which comfortably embraces our common interests and deals robustly with our disagreements. All previous Australian governments have managed this since 1972. Except this one. Turnbull instead has done a complete flip-flop-flap on China - from leading Huawei apologist, to launching a “reds under the bed” scare campaign which effectively questioned the loyalty of the Australian Chinese community, to his most recent UNSW capitulation. And all in the space of just a few years.

In matters of foreign policy, Chinese statecraft respects consistency and strength and is utterly contemptuous of weakness. By contrast, in Turnbull we now have a Prime Minister who is inconsistent, impulsive and worst of all - now weak.

Kevin Rudd is a former Labor prime minister and president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

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