At the Whispering Wall

This article was co-written by Corbin Duncan and Michel Nehme.

It was winter in Beijing, and Gough Whitlam cut an unusual figure in a terracotta-clad temple of the Chinese capital. Towering over his Chinese counterparts at 6’3”, Whitlam’s presence was marked by obvious bemusement and subtle suspicion in equal measure. It was his second visit to China in as many years and his first as the prime minister of Australia. The Australian statesman’s first diplomatic pilgrimage to the People’s Republic preceded Henry Kissinger’s own visit by just a few days, making Whitlam the first western leader to visit China since its nominal ‘fall’ into communist revolution. And, despite opting for a tan trench coat over the Maoist tunic, the Australian Labor leader settled in well to an emerging era of Sino-Australian relations. In so doing, he left cold war hawks in Washington decidedly unsettled.

At Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, Whitlam held his ear to the Whispering Wall. The centuries-old structure covertly carries a friend’s whisper from one side of the courtyard to the other. Guests to the Temple are, to this day, under instruction to remain respectful and considered, lest clamorous crowds leave one party’s missive unheard or misinterpreted.

Navigating Sino-Australian relations between the unease of Washington and suspicions of Beijing has been the unofficial project of Australian foreign policy for decades. By positioning itself as valuable to both states — for the U.S., militarily in an increasingly China-centric Asia Pacific, and for China, both economically and geographically — Australia has largely managed to profit from economic and diplomatic alliances with both superpowers, while astutely eschewing meaningful displays of hostility with either. Fifty years later, and with Australia caught in the unfolding Sino-American Thucydides trap, the coronavirus pandemic has left the detente-born balancing act more fraught than ever.

Humble Beginnings

From Whitlam’s watershed gesture of conciliation with a maligned regime, China’s leap into superpower status has courted flourishing Sino-Australian trade ties — ties which have already undergirded Australia’s mining boom from the early 2000s to late 2012. As of 2019, bilateral trade with China constituted 26% of Australia’s global trade, sustained largely by Chinese consumption in Australia’s natural resource and service sectors, from coal and iron ore to education and tourism. The 2015 China Australia Free Trade Agreement formalised Australia’s preferential treatment in China’s increasingly lucrative demand-side market. And, despite vexing geopolitical questions raised by the China-U.S. standoff in the South China Sea, Australia has largely managed to position itself as an actor that neither superpower was willing to isolate.

Nevertheless, with the mounting global scrutiny around China’s initial response to COVID-19, Australia’s delicate balancing game has met a sharp discontinuity. In mid-April, an ostensibly offhand talk-show remark by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, precipitated a swift descent into first diplomatic, and then economic reprisal from China. When Australia’s prime minister doubled down on Payne’s calls for an “independent inquiry” into the source and handling of the coronavirus outbreak, China’s bristling retort was immediate and scathing. Former overtures to promising Sino-Australian bilateralism gave way instead to a Global Times editor’s analogy that Australia “is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China”. Chinese ambassadors crudely insinuated that Australia was scarcely more than a U.S. propaganda puppet. Perhaps more troublingly, Scott Morrison’s refusal to back down from an independent inquiry, and the newfound willingness of state leaders around the globe to rally around his petitions, incited China’s game of crippling economic intimidation.

Coercion or Coincidence?

First, China imposed an 80.5% tariff on Australian barley imports, under the auspices of anti-dumping regulations — a move against Australian agriculture that the Chinese Communist Party has kept up its sleeves for the past 18 months. Then, the CCP cautioned against Chinese power plants buying Australian coal. In a vacuum, both of these policies could be chalked up to different, albeit bizarrely coincidental, motivations: the barley tariff to a backdoor trade detente with the U.S and the Australian coal quota to a continuation of Beijing’s 2019 protectionist energy policy. But the added context of a series of allusive threats — reforms to China’s iron ore import regulations, combative claims that Chinese students and tourists may now shun “such a country that is not so friendly to China” and injunctions against Australia’s Washington-aligned position on the Hong Kong protests — reveal a geopolitical strategy that is light on the carrot and heavy on the stick.

As if to rub salt into the wound of Australia’s ego, President Xi Jinping’s feigned embrace of a vastly watered-down, ‘objective’ WHO-led inquiry into the coronavirus just days after Morrison’s own call to action proved the regime unwilling to seem the second mover in matters of power projection. Whether Xi’s acceptance of this compromise inquiry marked a diplomatic victory for China or a begrudging concession to the inevitable, is not immediately clear. What is clear, however, is that this diplomatic episode denotes a pronounced departure from the toleration of Australia’s hedged geopolitical posture.

China’s condescensions towards Australian leadership and media alike better resembled the petulance of an indignant overlord than the practised pragmatism of a burgeoning world power. Critically, the CCP’s response was lacking in its usual strategic tact. There is a tenable critique to be levelled against the Morrison government’s naivete in expecting a passive China while seeming to side with Washington’s denunciation of Chinese malfeasance. Nevertheless, to lay both economic and rhetorical siege to the Morrison government was to force Morrison into an intractable dilemma where sudden retreat from an independent inquiry would be perceived as an unpalatable capitulation to China, and steadfastness as economic suicide. To publicly and unabashedly belittle Australia was to reignite public outcry against Australia’s economic dependence on China and a renewed scepticism around the limits on sovereignty embedded in any deal with the CCP. Immediately, the Victorian state government’s recent “One Belt One Road” agreement was reframed as a national security risk, and the federal government’s decision to ban Huawei’s 5G network vindicated.

The Tail Wagging the Dog: Aus-US

As with the CCP’s Global Times, some Washington hawks would certainly like to think of Australia as a country which “serves as a dog of the U.S.” Yet, U.S. policymakers err in confusing a loyal friend with a loyal servant, for which one might not fault them. Australia has the unique distinction of following the United States into every major armed conflict for over 100 years. Where the British thought better of war in Vietnam and Canada rightly baulked at an invasion of Iraq, Australia turned up. Even as recently as 2019, Australia agreed to send warships to the Strait of Hormuz — which, to antipodean ears, sounds more like a brunch item fit for a Melbourne cafe than a global flashpoint. Nonetheless, these military expeditions ought not to be confused for a star-spangled soft spot. Instead, for Australian politicians, they represent an insurance premium for the day they may come to call on the United States’ military might in the Asia-Pacific.

That insurance bill is becoming more difficult to justify and U.S. policymakers would do well to recognise this. Under the pretence of an America-first mandate, Trump has spent much of his time in office capriciously attacking allies and deconstructing the multilateral system which underwrites the security of the middle powers. More recently, Australians have watched with detached dismay as the U.S.’ political dysfunction has made it the prey of COVID-19 and of racial unrest.

With China clamping down on Australia, it should have made sense for the United States to wrest back shrinking global opinion by extending an unwavering hand. Instead, the Morrison government was left blindsided on two counts. First, by the U.S. Embassy in Canberra leaking a confidential Five Eyes intelligence dossier which alleged that Australia — along with its Western counterparts —  was planning to pin the source of COVID-19 on a Chinese government-run laboratory. They were not. The next bon mot came via the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s heedless threat to “simply disconnect” from Australia over the Victorian state government’s One Belt One Road agreement brokered in 2018. The U.S. Ambassador quickly walked-back the claim.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In calling for an independent inquiry into the origins and management of COVID-19, Australia was not pining for a pat on the back by Washington, nor did it intended to accost Beijing, its partner in prosperity. More likely, the Australian push was a matter of good governance and a good faith attempt to restore a semblance of multilateral cooperation in a geopolitical landscape cleaved apart by China and the U.S. What Australia failed to recognise was that successful multilateralism would require some contrition on the part of these two baying giants: an implausible recognition by the Chinese Government that they are to no trivial extent culpable for the magnitude of this pandemic and an acknowledgment by the United States that an effective coronavirus response for both home and abroad was to be found in cooperating with global counterparts and institutions.

If nothing else, this Sino-Australia-U.S. impasse is illuminating. Where there was any lingering uncertainty around the neo-imperialist modus operandi underpinning China’s foreign policy — and, most saliently, their often economically-predatory One Belt One Road project — the CCP’s sustained antagonism towards Australia ought to dispel it. Here, the regime have shown themselves either intolerant or incapable of the political discretion required to secure the trust of a democratic nation: not only of their government but of an Australian people for whom deference to power is nothing short of cultural anathema. Likewise, if Australian politicians still held to any dwindling delusions of the United States’ trustworthiness as a military and economic bulwark against China, Pompeo’s biting rejection should caution otherwise.

Deft, discrete politicking no longer rules the day at the whispering wall of international diplomacy, leaving Australian leaders caught between competing sirens. It is in neither China’s nor the United States’ best interests to make Australia choose — and, for Australia, perhaps the best choice is neither.

Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. NAA: A6180, 14/11/73/209.

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