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The first law of holes: stop digging

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on the turnaround in how Beijing views Canberra.
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The Albanese government is partway through a successful reset of its relationship with China. The incredible thing is, they haven’t changed any policies.

But will a change in language be enough to fix a diplomatic rift? And what’s next for Australia’s relationship with the Pacific, where it is trying to balance China’s influence?

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on the turnaround in how Beijing views Canberra. 

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*.

The Albanese government is partway through a successful reset of its relationship with China. The incredible thing is, they haven’t changed any policies.

But will a change in language be enough to fix a diplomatic rift? And what’s next for Australia’s relationship with the Pacific, where it is trying to balance China’s influence?

Today, national correspondent for *The Saturday Paper* Mike Seccombe on the turnaround in how Beijing views Canberra. 

It’s Thursday, July 21.

[Theme Music Ends]

##RUBY:
So Mike, the last time that you and I spoke about Australia's relationship with China, Scott Morrison was in charge and the relationship was at its lowest point in half a century. Things were tense, weren’t they?

##MIKE:
Yes, they were. And I've got to say, you know, this had been coming for some time, so that's the first point. China has become increasingly assertive, I think is the phrase that everybody uses in the region. And there'd been increasing tensions over things like its military presence in the South China Sea, criticism of its human rights record, particularly in relation to its treatment of the Uyghurs. 

But the thing that really escalated hostility specifically with Australia and with the Morrison government was the government's blaming of China for Covid, the start of the pandemic. And it called for an inquiry that would presumably blame China for the coronavirus. So that really kicked things off. 

##Archival tape -- News Reporter:
“China has suspended indefinitely high level economic talks with Australia.”

##MIKE:
Pretty quickly we had trade sanctions imposed on us against quite a range of Australian exports to China, including coal, grain, timber, wine, lobsters.

##Archival tape -- David Speers:
“Well there are fears this morning Australia’s trade stoush with Beijing is deepening amid reports that Australian lobster exports are being held up by China’s customs officers.”

##MIKE:
So that's when things started to get really ugly. And in response the Morrison government was very aggressive. 

##Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“China, they don’t play by the same rules as liberal, transparent democracies.” 

##MIKE:
Morrison went about saying that China was now part of a, quote, arc of autocracy, unquote...

##Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“We’re dealing with an autocratic nation that is not playing by the normal rules.”  

##MIKE:
..that threatened the international rules based order. Peter Dutton, his Defence Minister, was going about talking up the possibility of military conflict… 

##Archival tape -- Peter Dutton:
“The only way that you can preserve peace, is to prepare for war and to be strong as a country.” 

##MIKE:
…involving China and America, we’re talking about the drums of war, quote unquote. 

##Archival tape -- Peter Dutton:
“Not to cower, not to be on bended knee…” 

##MIKE:
And some of this was megaphone diplomacy directed at China. A lot of it was playing for domestic political advantage, and that was apparent in the fact that the government spent a lot of time trying to suggest that Labor was somehow soft on China.

##Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“They will not find a fellow traveller when it comes to threats and coercion against Australia in my government…”

##MIKE:
That China would prefer to see Labour win the election, Morrison at one stage went so far as to call Labour's deputy leader, Richard Marles, a Manchurian candidate. It was pretty ugly.

##RUBY:
So a bad time, Mike?

##MIKE:
A very bad time, and there was no government to government interaction at all. No meetings whereby the respective governments of Australia and China might talk to one another and maybe, you know, politely, or at least not so heatedly address their differences. Instead we had this megaphone diplomacy directed at China and this hyperbolic language directed at securing domestic political advantage.

##RUBY:
And so what has changed since the Albanese Government took office? To what degree would you say that relations have improved? Because it does seem like there has been somewhat of a reset.

##MIKE:
Well, it does, and it's only been a couple of months too since the election. Diplomacy moves slowly, but there have been some encouraging signs. For a start, conversations have commenced again with China. There have been side meetings at various international summits. Penny Wong, the new Foreign Minister, met with her Chinese counterpart at the G20 in Bali recently. The Defence Ministers have met. The state Chinese press, which always gives us a very good insight into how the Chinese government is thinking, started commenting on the improvement and saying that there's been a diplomatic thaw, so the omens are generally pretty good.

##RUBY:
Mike, what is different then about Australia's position towards China now? Because I didn't think that when it came down to it that Labor's policies towards China were really very far from the Coalition's?

##MIKE:
Well, you're exactly right and I think that's what's interesting here. There really is no material difference in policy terms between the two sides of politics. There wasn't before the election, despite what the government tried to portray, and there still isn't. 

And I spoke to Hugh White about this, and he's Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, and he's previously written a Defence White Paper for Australia. And the way he put it, he invoked the law of holes.

##Archival tape -- Hugh White:
“You know, the first law of holes. If you're in a hole, stop digging. And the government’s primary concern has been to stop digging…” 

##MIKE:
So I guess that's the significant thing here. The Albanese Government has stopped digging. It doesn't want to make things worse. And White, for one, welcomes this.

##Archival tape -- Hugh White:
“Look, I think it was a function of two things. First of all, not so much ideology as habit. That is the habit that, if you face a challenge to US power, what you do is you go all out to support the United States in opposing it..” 

##MIKE:
He still expresses some concern that the government thinks that a change in rhetoric will be enough to change a very fraught relationship. And it is fraught, he says, because Australia still remains so tethered to America.

##Archival tape -- Hugh White:
“Even though we have pretty good evidence from Vietnam on that that doesn't always work very well.”  

##MIKE:
And that was a problem prior to the Labor Government taking power and it's still a problem now.

##Archival tape -- Hugh White:
“So I think there is that sort of habit of mind, America's going in hard against the Chinese, we’ll go in hard against the Chinese too.” 

 ##MIKE:
So what he sees as the fundamental problem is that Australia still thinks that America will solve the problem of Chinese growing power for us. And he is not at all convinced that America can in fact, he's quite convinced that America can't. 

And actually we saw these very tensions being played out at the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji. And Australia found itself kind of wedged right in the middle of it.

##RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 

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##RUBY:
Mike, Labor's trying to set a balance in its relationship with China and with America. And you mentioned the tensions at the Pacific Island Forum, so could you talk me through those? In what way are we seeing discord between the two superpowers play out at this time?

##MIKE:
Well, the most obvious thing to note, I guess, is that China wasn't at the forum, but America was.

##Archival tape -- Fiji Prime Minister:
“I'm very pleased to welcome the Vice President of the United States of America… Kamala Harris.”

##Archival tape -- Kamala Harris:
“Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. It is my honour to join you, and thank you for inviting me.”

##MIKE:
The U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris, appeared by teleconference, and she promised great largesse to the island nations, hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

##Archival tape -- Kamala Harris:
“The United States is a proud Pacific Nation, which is why President Joe Biden and I seek to strengthen our partnership with you.”

##MIKE:
But at the same time, she was using the kind of language that reminded me of the Morrison era.

##Archival tape -- Kamala Harris:
“In this region and around the world, the United States believes it is important to strengthen the international rules based order. To defend it, to promote it and to build on it.”

##MIKE:
She talked about, quote, bad actors seeking to undermine the rules based order. She was talking about aggression and coercion being directed towards the Pacific nations.

##Archival tape -- Kamala Harris:
“Principles that allow all states, big and small, to conduct their affairs free from aggression or coercion.”

##MIKE:
It was very strong stuff, and I thought what was interesting was that Australia very obviously didn't echo the same language. We went there, we also promised aid and other things, but the language of the Australian delegation was much more cautious. 

##RUBY:
So China’s not at this key diplomatic conference, but it sounds like the conference is still all about China.

##MIKE:
Well, certainly that was a major subtext. I think the other one, of course, was climate. The Pacific Island nations are obviously very concerned about rising sea levels, stronger cyclones, that sort of thing. But very much it was about China. And in fact, not only was China not really there, it was worse than that, because some junior figures from the Chinese embassy turned up there posing as media and were immediately spotted and thrown out. So it wasn't just that they were absent, they were actually ejected. 

But the fact is there's just no escaping China's influence in the Pacific, and some numbers help make that clear. If we take the Solomons, which signed a security pact with China a couple of months ago, the value of Solomon Islands exports to China is 72 times the value of Solomon Islands exports to Australia. That's not doubled. Not tripled. 72 times as great. So its influence is only going to expand. We passed the point a long time ago where we had a unipolar world, as we did after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The future is going to be multipolar, and there will be major powers with different spheres of influence in different parts of the world. And China wants to be dominant in East Asia and South-West Pacific sphere. It wants what America has, essentially. And this isn't just strategic, it’s also just economic. It wants more from the region. It's hungry for protein so it wants more fish. It wants more raw materials, it wants logs from the Solomons, it wants minerals from PNG, it wants seabed resources. The list goes on and all the people I spoke to just thought it was an inevitability that we would see more and more Chinese influence in this part of the world.

##RUBY:
And we've spoken about Australia's relationship with China, but what about our relationship with these countries in the Pacific? Because there's been a lot of tension in the past, mostly over climate. But is that changing now? How is Australia viewed by the leaders of these nations?

##MIKE:
Well, it's a very good and interesting question I think. Albanese got a very warm welcome from the leaders at the forum and so did Penny Wong. Among the experts that I spoke to, the consensus was that the Pacific Island nations are actually pretty good at leveraging their sovereignty - that if they can, they will play the ends against the middle and they can get largesse from both sides. The Chinese come and promise them a lot and the Americans come and promise them a lot, it's kind of like an auction and they're doing quite well out of it. 

But the other thing that they all said was that at a deeper level, these islands trust Australia and New Zealand and even to a lesser extent America, far more than they trust China. And if we can address some of the things that are of great concern to them, particularly climate change, that will help shore up that relationship, I guess. 

##RUBY:
And Mike, this change in the way that Australia is relating to China, which as you say, is really a change in rhetoric rather than there being any sort of significant policy changes. Is there any danger to us in this? Because if you listen to the way that Kamala Harris spoke at this forum, the line from the US is now very different to the line from Australia, yet China remains the same - their interest in the South China Sea remains the same, there's still human rights issues. So is there any, I suppose, danger to Australia in changing the way that we talk to China? Is there any scenario where that leads to us getting taken advantage of.

##MIKE:
There probably is, I think. But we should remember that America is a very long way from this part of the world. 
The line back in the Hawke-Keating years was that we should seek our security in Asia, not from Asia. Obviously China has a very different form of government from us and we have differences on many levels, but it's not in our interest to escalate conflict if we can avoid it. 

You know, we should think of this in terms of competition, perhaps rather than conflict. And the way to prosper in a competitive environment is to maximise your own advantage. So in the South Pacific, for example, keep those ties alive and deepen them. It's a much richer alternative than just going around shouting through a megaphone about how bad the other guys are. And I think that's the bottom line here. It's avoid conflict if you can, but accept that there's going to be increasing competition into the future. 

##RUBY:
Mike, thank you so much for your time.

##MIKE:
Thank you very much. 

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[Theme Music Starts]

##RUBY:
Also in the news today,

NSW MP John Sidoti has been found to have engaged in serious corrupt conduct by trying to influence local councillors to benefit his family’s property interests. Sidoti allegedly threatened councillors' jobs if they did not vote in his favour.

On Wednesday, the Independent Commission Against Corruption said it was seeking advice on whether any criminal prosecution should be commenced. 

Sidoti denies all wrongdoing. 

And in Victoria, premier Daniel Andrews has publicly apologised for his party after Operation Watts released a scathing report which investigated branch stacking and corruption within the Victorian Labor Party.

The joint investigation from the state's integrity agencies found - quote “a catalogue of unethical behaviour,” including widespread misuse of public resources, nepotism and ongoing corruption risks. 

In a press conference on Wednesday the Victorian Premier said his government takes full responsibility and will adopt all 21 of the report's recommendations. 

I’m Ruby Jones. This is *7am*. See you tomorrow. 

[Theme Music Ends]

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