Labor can't let security bosses bully it over China

By Geoff Raby

Published on 15 May 2019 on Australian Financial Review

If Labor forms a government next week, its most important foreign policy issue will be how to restore relations with China. Under Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop’s mismanagement, the relationship plumbed its lowest depth since diplomatic ties were established 47 years ago.

Doing so won’t be easy and will require substantive policy changes, not merely a re-packing of existing approaches and changed messaging as Penny Wong is offering, as helpful and well intentioned as these may be.

If past patterns were followed, an early visit by the Chinese foreign minister could be expected involving an invitation for the Prime Minister to visit at an early time. This will not happen now. China feels no pressure to repair relations.

Two issues that will define whether Labor is able to restore the relationship to previous levels of engagement are Huawei’s participation in the 5G network and Australia’s signing on to various Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) memoranda. Neither will be easy and both will require Labor to define its relationship with the United States early on.

Last August, the Turnbull government’s grand rejection of Huawei’s participation in the 5G network would appear to have been a significant factor in Beijing’s decision to keep the relationship in the freezer. While every Australian government has not only the right, but also the responsibility, to protect Australia’s security – however that may be understood – a high-profile, publicly announced blanket ban on Huawei’s participation was unnecessary.

If diplomats had been involved rather than the heavy-handed security establishment in Canberra, a more nuanced less offensive approach could have been adopted without compromising national security. As the British and German governments have just concluded, a 5G network contains sensitive and non-sensitive equipment and access. It is in the interests of Australian consumers for the government to work out which is which and open tendering for non-sensitive areas to the most competitive equipment supplier.

As a priority, a Labor government should instruct the bureaucracy to identify which parts of a 5G network can be opened to competitive tendering from all interested potential suppliers. For those parts that will be restricted, the diplomats should be left to work on the messaging and presentation. Beijing understands that governments will seek legitimately to protect national security as it does so itself. It is unnecessary and harms Australia’s interests to do this in ways that cause Beijing to lose face, as was done by the Turnbull government.

BRI is the signature foreign policy initiative of President Xi Jinping. As such, it has assumed an importance for Chinese officials far greater than it warrants in terms of its substance. Australia has not yet had a credible policy position on BRI, other than it is suspicious of China’s motives. Behind this is a fuzzy notion that somehow, through BRI, China is seeking to impose a Sino-centric order on the world.

The BRI horse has well and truly bolted by now. It claims 152 countries and international organisations as participants. It comprises multiple international forums extending well beyond trade, investment and infrastructure to finance and even intellectual property, in which the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) actively participates.

It is not in Australia’s interest to stand apart from this rapidly evolving international architecture. If Australia holds doubts about China’s real agenda, then its interests are better served by joining with the other democracies that are engaged with the BRI and working to influence its development.

It is true that the BRI is a direct challenge to the post-1949, US led, international system. China makes no secret of its ambitions to re-shape that to reflect the changed balance of global economic weight and increasingly of power. Australia needs to be engaged in helping shape the new order, and not be a King Canute.

Labor has indicted some vague softening on BRI but not on Huawei. It must hope that the issue is now behind it, but with the decisions by the British and Germans to permit Huawei to participate in some ways in their 5G networks, it is still very much alive.

A major difficulty for Labor is that the US has defined these two issues as key points of confrontation with China. Any move by a Labor government to shift away from current Coalition policies will be seen in Washington as something of a betrayal. The stakes are high and it would appear that Labor has done nothing to prepare the US for such an eventuality.

It would take enormous confidence and political courage for new ministers to resist the concerted efforts by the intelligence and security establishment to keep Australia firmly aligned with the US on Huawei and BRI. The intelligence community is a past master at the theatre of briefing ministers, especially new ones, to scare them into compliance.

Padlocked satchels of different colours are opened slowly. The wheels of the heavy combination locks clunk as if to emphasis the authority of the officers and build the expectation of ministers about to receive their first intelligence briefing. A single sheet of paper stamped with red code words is passed across to ministers. This is the evidence that the threat is far worse than the minister could ever have imagined. The minister feels squeamish. At that moment, the possibility of an independent foreign policy is lost.