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Bing News

  • Written by Bing

If you could trace the exact moment where Australia's relationship with China reached its nadir, it would be at a suburban Sydney shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon.

As people bustled about inside Top Ryde mall doing their Christmas shopping on December 9 last year, Malcolm Turnbull held a doorstop campaign with John Alexander, who was fighting to win back his seat of Bennelong.

But the questions were dominated by tensions with China. Turnbull, seeking an advantage in a byelection that would make or break his leadership, had been hammering Labor Senator Sam Dastyari over his closeness to Chinese-Australian political donors, while Beijing a day earlier had made a complaint to Australian diplomats over the Prime Minister linking Chinese activity to the need for foreign interference laws.

Asked whether he was intimidated by China, Turnbull was blunt, in both English and Mandarin.

Malcolm Turnbull tries to get Australia out of the Chinese diplomatic freezer PM Malcolm Turnbull's UNSW speech was seen as an attempt to reset relations with China. Dean Lewins

"I tell you this – modern China was founded in 1949 with this, with these words: 'Zhōngguóren men zhànqǐlai', 'The Chinese people have stood up'," Turnbull said as the cameras rolled.

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"It was an assertion of sovereignty, it was an assertion of pride. And we stand up, and so we say: 'Àodàlìyǎren men zhànqǐlai', 'The Australian people stand up'."

Turnbull's use of the quote – often attributed to Chairman Mao Zedong although the provenance of it is in question – infuriated Chinese leaders and officials and was very damaging, sources have said.

Since that time it's been like a game of diplomatic snakes and ladders on Australia's part trying to repair the relationship. Over the past few weeks there have been indications the government has been working harder to bridge those differences, culminating in the Prime Minister's conciliatory speech at the University of NSW on Tuesday.

Veiled warnings

Malcolm Turnbull tries to get Australia out of the Chinese diplomatic freezer While his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2017 was widely regarded as Turnbull's "coming out" as a China hawk. AP

Part of what lay behind Turnbull's speech was a fear among universities of a boycott by Chinese students. International education has become Australia's third biggest export industry, worth $32 billion last year, with Chinese students becoming the universities' biggest cash cow and making up almost a third of foreign students.

While there has been no sign of a dip – with official figures released in May showing 173,000 Chinese nationals studying here  – vice-chancellors were worried that veiled warnings from Chinese officials about students "safety" on campus would scare them off 

From the sector's point of view, the immediate hope is that Turnbull's speech may be able to ward off that threat. But the PM had a broader motive, saying he wanted to "identify some misperceptions" and propose "clearer thinking".

He returned to one of his favourite themes, the "Thucydides trap", US security analyst Graham Allison's theory that war is likely when an established power feels threatened by a rising one. Turnbull said it was a "big mistake" to assume war with China was inevitable. 

Malcolm Turnbull tries to get Australia out of the Chinese diplomatic freezer Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, last month. Bishop pushed back in her strongest terms yet against US overtures for Australia to conduct freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands within the South China Sea. DAVID PAUL MORRIS

In front of an audience that included Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye, Turnbull also offered a reassurance that the US and Western allies would not and should not seek to contain China or that China would assume the Soviet Union's Cold War role. 

The speech acknowledged China's grievance that it is not being given room to grow, and demonstrated that Turnbull can lend an understanding ear.

"Will a stronger, richer China have a more confident and assertive voice in world affairs? Of course it will. Will it seek to persuade other countries that its point of view is correct? Will it try to get the best deal it can in trade? Of course it will, like everybody else does," Turnbull said.

Opportunities for co-operation

Turnbull also restated Australia's consistent position of support for the international-rules based order – another area China criticises because it had no voice in writing those rules after World War II – but framed it in terms of opportunities for co-operation. 

Contrast that to Turnbull's keynote address at Asia's premier security forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June last year. Then the PM warned that a "coercive China would find its neighbours resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space".

"This means co-operation, not unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarise disputed areas. This means competing within the framework of international law not winning through corruption, interference or coercion," Turnbull lectured.

The Singapore speech was widely regarded as Turnbull's "coming out" as a China hawk but it was really squabbling over foreign interference – brought on by the Dastyari revelations and warnings from intelligence agencies about Chinese meddling in domestic politics and cyber espionage – that saw relations nosedive.

In their most pointed comments, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Australia needed to remove its "tinted glasses" while the envoy Cheng said Australia needed to shed its "Cold War mentality".

The tensions left business figures despairing, with Australia China Business Council president John Brumby lamenting at the same Parliament House event where Cheng spoke that the relationship needed "reset and repair".

Government insiders insisted Turnbull's speech this week did not mark any change in policy (and certainly was not an admission the government had got its rhetoric wrong), although don't quibble with its characterisation as a reset. 

They believe the passage of the foreign interference laws and foreign interests register in June has taken the harsh spotlight off the difficulties. Instead of Turnbull being asked day after day at press conferences and interviews on how Australia was on the nose in Beijing and inflaming the issue, the PM was able to re-engage with the issue on his own terms at the university.

'Respectful' approach

Turnbull's expression of "clearer thinking" was an expression of his frustration that the media wants to make every issue about China and accusations he has mishandled the relationship. 

While insistent that Australia would defend its sovereignty, Turnbull emphasised the relationship with China was one where differences needed to be managed "respectfully", and talked up the positive aspects, namely trade and economic growth. 

Turnbull believes that security and prosperity go hand-in-hand. The cornerstone of the "Turnbull thesis" is security – be it around counter-terrorism, foreign interference, cyber or immigration – enables the public to have confidence and trust in diversity and ensures social cohesion and economic prosperity.

Turnbull's voice carries the most weight as Prime Minister but there have been other signs of a thaw that Beijing would have noticed. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last month pushed back in her strongest terms yet against American overtures for Australia to conduct freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands within the South China Sea, while a Chinese frigate will take part in war games off the coast of Darwin next month – both cases where Australia is at odds with the American position.

Late on Wednesday, China's foreign ministry said it "commends" the sentiments of Turnbull's speech.

Australia China Relations Institute deputy director James Laurenceson says Turnbull's speech signals a return to Australia's historical balanced position towards China but it would take Beijing to approve a visit for Bishop before people could say with confidence the relationship was back on track.

"I imagine this speech will be welcomed by the Chinese leadership but they will still take a bit of convincing that this reflects the government's position," Laurenceson says.

Authors: Bing

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