Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 22:23 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 22:23 | SYDNEY

China: Whip or whispers


Graeme Dobell

14 July 2009 12:46

For the Rudd Government, the implications of the confrontation with China range from the domestic danger of the David Hicks effect to the strategic prospect of White Paper retribution. 

Australia obviously would like a speedy and quiet resolution that would see its arrested citizen put on a plane and sent home. This has set the measured tone of Rudd’s initial responses. In response, the Opposition Leader does what oppositions are entitled to do. The Prime Minister, he says, should get on the job and immediately fix this outrageous espionage charge.

If the drama drags on, Malcolm Turnbull can start to play the other side of his previous shots at Kevin Rudd for being the Manchurian candidate and China’s travelling ambassador. The charge was that Rudd was too close to China. What if Rudd is close but powerless?

This is the David Hicks effect. No matter the rights or wrongs of the US detention of Hicks at Guantanamo, by the end the case was politically damaging for the Howard Government. The Australian’s civil rights were being denied and the Howard Government was not using its special relationship with the US to fix the matter. When the political price started to rise in the 2007 election year, a resolution was found and Hicks was spirited back to Australia.

The Hicks effect can take years to build, so for the moment this is a minor calculation. More worrying is the thought that this is the start of a concerted Chinese effort to punish the Rudd Government for economic and strategic slights — White Paper retribution mixing with anger at the workings of the Australian market.

Beijing understands what a hedging strategy looks like. It was been watching the US version for years. Rudd’s offence may be to have been too explicit in the White Paper about Australia’s thoughts on how to respond to a China that goes to the dark side.

It’s instructive to briefly consider the last big bout of Oz bashing by China. The Beijing blow-torch was applied to the Howard Government in 1996 in its first months in office. Howard’s offences were to cross China on the Dalai Lama, make some minute moves on Taiwan and, most importantly, publicly back the US military response to the Taiwan missile-test crisis.

China was test firing missiles over Taiwan. The US responded by sending two carrier battle groups to the waters around Taiwan. Yet the country that seemed to get the most direct political payback in the aftermath was Australia. China stopped official visits and froze movement on almost any commercial negotiations with Australian firms. By the end of 1996, Howard did a personal deal with China’s leadership. Its essence was that Canberra had felt the pain and got the message.

In 1996, Beijing squeezed Australian business to send a range of messages to Canberra. The same technique may be in play again. This time, the trade stakes are huge. The Rudd Government may be getting payback for its failure to wave through the Chinalco investment in Rio, what would have been China’s largest single overseas investment.

If China has decided to send some pain messages to Canberra, then we will not have to wait long to see the pattern. Simon Crean may not have to muse for long about whether to put the free trade negotiations with China on the backburner; the deal will just freeze for lack of Beijing attention.

The irony of Australia having kicked off those trade negotiations by granting China 'market economy' status is again on display. In giving this gift, Canberra might have spent some time asking Beijing to define the difference between state secrets and market negotiations.

Even if no campaign to whip Canberra eventuates, it will be a while before normal service resumes from Beijing. China’s leadership is grappling with the bloodiest outbreak of unrest in 20 years. The Rudd Government will be lucky to get attention in Beijing, much less action.

Photo by Flickr user Rusty Stewart, used under a Creative Commons license.