Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton likes to publicise that he has an "issue" with the government of China. Read between the lines and you'll see that his Liberal colleague, outgoing senator Arthur Sinodinos, also holds concerns about China - but his valedictory speech on Wednesday suggests he recognises the art of diplomacy. Sinodinos is leaving the Senate to take up the post of ambassador to the United States, whereas the only way Dutton can get involved in foreign affairs is by veering well outside of his Home Affairs lane.
While it is logical that the Prime Minister would want to keep a character like Dutton away from any diplomatic post, here's the rub: the Home Affairs Minister's China remarks were on point. What he said is right, but he's wrong to say it publicly.
When the Prime Minister downplayed his Home Affairs Minister's comments at the beginning of the week, Scott Morrison alluded to China's different political system. What he might also have admitted is that Beijing is better at keeping its thoughts in its head. Yes, the authoritarian nature of the regime helps China's leadership remain discreet and get away with doublespeak at times. But there is a lesson to be learned - even for, to quote Peter Dutton, "a democracy like ours" where "we encourage freedom of speech, freedom of expression, thought etc." As Sinodinos declared, invoking Theodore Roosevelt, our leaders need to "talk softly but carry a big stick".
Aussies like straight talking, and Peter Dutton has based his career on doing just that.
"Our issue as I've said before is not with the Chinese people," asserted Dutton on October 11. "My issue is with the Communist Party of China and their policies to the extent that they are inconsistent with our own values."
Yes, he's right - Australia, by-and-large, isn't keen on the policies and practices of a dictatorial communist party. But what's gained by proclaiming that aloud?
China's "century of humiliation" - from the 1842 defeat in the First Opium War with Britain through to the nation's rape by Imperial Japan a hundred years later - brought the Chinese Communist Party to power and has remained a defining component of their raison d'être to this day. Hence hubristic grandstanding by foreign powers - including a middle power like Australia - is received contemptuously. And repeatedly attacking China's Communist Party as the enemy only helps augment nationalistic support around the party.
What Dutton said may be largely accurate, but vowing to "call out" China on every perceived misdemeanour would at best achieve nothing and at worst be self-damaging. It's not just the mining sector where Australia depends upon China - tourism, education and agricultural exports could easily be made to suffer. Don't misunderstand me, the point is certainly not to avoid offending China, but to be calculating rather than confrontationally shaming them into losing face with counterproductive regularity.
Some issues are worth taking action on - and worth accepting a possible hit on wine exports or the number of Chinese students applying to Australian universities. But there's an art to diplomacy. An Australian government minister simply mouthing off will never lead to the slightest change of policy in, say, the People's Liberation Army Navy's operations in the South China Sea or China's propensity to hack into Australian organisations through the internet.
Energies should be focused on pushing back against China with practical policies. For example, through adroit military spending and strengthening ties with other nations in the Indo-Pacific region.
Repeatedly publicly admonishing China for hacking attempts upon Australia's political parties, universities and other institutions does little to prevent future attacks. Of course China endeavours to hack into such institutions - we should be more surprised if they didn't. Such behaviour is a part of the modus operandi of a totalitarian superpower (and, for that matter, a non-totalitarian superpower - the United States is not averse to committing cyber warfare). The Chinese Communist Party is not going to stop hacking simply because the Home Affairs Minister calls it out.
Canberra should be low on bluster and high on action. Although too heavy-handed for some, the security legislation passed last year that banned foreign interference in politics was a practical step that surpassed rhetoric and sent a clear message. Furthermore, if an outside power is using advanced technology and highly trained cyber minds to hack in, then Australia must procure the latest technology and highly skilled personnel to keep it out. Praised in Sinodinos's speech, AustCyber, an organisation that's only two years old, must continue to develop with federal support.
In the global arena, Sinodinos suggests deepening China's engagement and commitment to the liberal world order, embodied by institutions which the US has established since World War II. In doing so, we place China in a position where, as a stakeholder, it has much to lose if the boat were to rock too much.
Although, as Sinodinos puts it, "beggar-thy-neighbour" policies won't get us far, let us not be naive. We could learn a little doublespeak from China, which tells the world that it is pursuing a "peaceful rise"; whether or not that's true, it is certainly in that nation's own interests to proclaim as much. Without the need for elections and regular changes of government, a one-party state such as China is well placed to implement long-term strategies. However, without excuse, Australia must prioritise strategic planning over scattergun soundbites.
China's response to anything it doesn't like from Canberra is to call on Australia to abandon the "Cold War mentality". And it is half right. Our leaders should have the diplomatic sense not to show their emotions as readily as Dutton, who seeks to bolster his domestic standing as the "tell-it-how-it-is" guy who stands up to China. Cordiality and a search for commonalities should preponderate. But, behind the scenes, a strategically driven Cold War mentality is exactly what is required when dealing with a rising authoritarian power.
- Paul Letters is a journalist and novelist who lived in Hong Kong for 18 years, where he was a presenter for state broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong on their weekday morning current affairs show. His most recent novel is The Slightest Chance.