A Nervous Australia Feels China’s Too-Warm Embrace

Australia has rather suddenly woken to the fact that although exports to China are a significant source of the nation’s wealth, Beijing has been hard at work trying to undermine Australia’s relationships with it its strategic allies, the US and Japan.

Complicating this issue is another fact: the ethnic Chinese community in the country is now second only in numbers to the Anglo-Celtic population base and continues to grow rapidly, mainly from the mainland.

Three events have come together to focus on these questions. First and most important was the unveiling by Malcom Turnbull’s conservative Liberal-National coalition government of draft laws to limit the ability of foreign governments to influence local politics and decision making. The target was clearly China which here, perhaps more than elsewhere, has been making concerted efforts to influence Australians in its favor on such issues as the South China Sea and the relative importance of relations with Australia’s largest trading partner, using media and academic links, and money.

Local media have been eager users of Beijing-oriented free copy and universities are blessed with Confucius Institutes and other aspects of China’s generously financed soft power. Beijing appears to have seen Australia as a particularly promising target given its open society and economic reliance on China trade, students and property investment.

If some thought that Turnbull was simply indulging in some China-bashing to shore up his shaky government, the next bit of news did more than just shake the opposition Labor Party. It was an illustration of just how vulnerable some high-profile Australians were to the lure of Chinese friendship and money. It was revealed through a series of leaks to the media that a high profile Labor Senator, Sam Dastyari, an up-and-coming politician from the right wing of the Labor party in New South Wales, had not only been in personal receipt of Chinese money but had attempted to influence others to support China’s position on the South China Sea – in conflict with the policy of his own party as well as the government.

Dastyari was forced to resign amid speculation that additional names would be “outed.” The leaks most likely came from an intelligence source, possible Australia’s own Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) which has warned of the extent of Chinese attempts to buy influence.

According to ASIO, two billionaire Chinese businessmen resident in Australia have donated A$6.7 million to Australian political parties. One, a former Shenzhen property developer, was until recently chairman of one of the Chinese United Front organizations operating in Australia – the Council for the Peaceful Reunification of China. Mainland security officials are also known to be active keeping an eye on Chinese students and, where necessary, “persuading” them not to be influenced by liberal and democratic notions.

All this coincided with a by-election in the Liberal held seat of Bennelong in Sydney. A Labor win for this seat would likely have led to the downfall of the Turnbull government, which has the narrowest of majorities in parliament. The constituency happens to have the highest proportion of ethnic Chinese voters in the country – about 19 percent. There was speculation that they would be offended by the anti-Beijing tenor of the proposed laws and the Dastyari affair and vote Labor. In the event, it appears to have made no difference. The swing against the Liberals was only 5 percent, less than expected given the government’s poor standing, compared with the 9 percent needed to unseat them and there was no indication the Chinese voters were influenced.

Indeed the idea that the Chinese would be so influenced betrayed ignorance of the diversity of views of a population which may have so sense of ethnic identity but does not translate that into political identity – much as though Beijing would like to harness more of these “compatriots” into pushing the PRC line. Although many prosperous recent immigrants from the mainland may be sympathetic to China’s international claims, older migrants and their offspring from Malaysia, Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan and the Tiananmen era refuges are either hostile to or have no interest in today’s PRC.

Beijing meanwhile has attacked the Australian government over the proposed laws, claiming them to be racist as well as hostile. The racism claim would be better aimed at Beijing itself given its attempt to use the bond of ethnicity to claim the allegiance of Chines people who have migrated to another country and hence owe no loyalty to China’s current rulers and policies.

Nonetheless, there is a legitimate concern among some Chinese Australians that they will be tarred with the Beijing brush even though only a small minority of migrants actively support Beijing’s efforts to change Australian policies. Beijing of course has the sovereign right to try to influence Australians in its favor – but not to use ethnicity of foreign nationals as tool. That way lies nothing but trouble for Chinese minorities.

The Australian awakening to a perceived China influence threat has coincided with similar awakenings elsewhere, including China’s major trade partner in Europe – Germany. But Australia unquestionably has a dilemma, seeing how Beijing recently used its commercial power to force South Korea to limit the Thaad missile deployment. Mining, tourism and academic interests could be targeted. China is by far the largest buyer of minerals, supplier of tourists and of fee-paying university students. Businessmen have been warning not to upset China.

On the other hand, the events have begun to make Australia more aware of the fact that it has other partners in trade was well as services – old ones such as Japan, Korea and the US, and newer ones such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam which thus far are small but have much bigger potential than China, whose demand for minerals and food may be close to a plateau. Combined trade with Japan, the US and Korea is as much as China which accounts of 28 percent of Australian exports and 23 percent of total trade.

For strategic reasons, Australia needs close relations with countries that regard Chinese ambitions with suspicion – its nearest big neighbor, Indonesia, and its giant Indian ocean neighbor, India. These have long been ignored as Australia has basked in two decades of China-trade based prosperity, but they are part of informal alliance of nations which view the continued US presence as a necessary antidote to China’s hegemonic ambitions.

If nothing else, the recent events have made Australians think a little harder about their position in the world and the importance of diverse relationships based on values and political systems as well as money.