China-Australia relations are going to be a big issue this election, particularly in the light of Beijing taking Australia to the World Trade Organisation over the 5G ban. Politicians may try to ignore it, but they will eventually have to start talking honestly about Chinese relations in this election cycle. Michael Sainsbury reports.

BEIJING HAS doubled down on its mounting fury with Australia for leading the way, globally, in banning Chinese telecommunications network suppliers Huawei Technologies and ZTE from participating in critical communications networks where investment is presently focused on 5G mobile technology. To make matters worse, Australia has been trying to convince other Anglophone countries in the so-called Five Eyes spy network to join it.

Australia banned Huawei from the benighted National Broadband Network in 2009 and followed suit with mobile 5G last August. Now Beijing is taking Australia to the World Trade Organisation.

Now, if there was any already doubt China would be a significant issue in the federal election campaign, that has surely been put to bed.

Alongside a recent spate of media attention – including a Four Corners exposé on Chinese influence in Australia, accusations of China harassing Uighurs on Australian soil, and confirmation that Australian children have being caught up in China’s vast Uighur crackdown – Beijing has found itself front and centre in the Australian news cycle.

China was clearly not happy about that. It never is. Each round of criticism by Australia has been met with typically thin-skinned, bilious propaganda by state-run media, usually the nationalistic Communist Party tabloid Global Times that Rupert Murdoch helped create as he sought unsuccessfully, for a way to get into the Chinese market. Creeping Chinese influence in politics, academia and critical telecommunications networks have been at the centre of continuing chilly relations between Beijing and Canberra — and the accusations are unlikely to go away

This comes at a time where the major parties have been publicly musing and experimenting with how to capture what they perceive as the growing Chinese-Australian vote. It’s not as simple as that, of course it’s hardly a monolithic or indeed monocultural bloc so it’s confusing for the major parties. But this creates a further conundrum for both sides of politics on exactly how to characterise China and how much influence politicians are ready to address. Indeed, Scott Morrison showed just how far away the Liberal Party, at least, is for answers with his embarrassing “ni hao” (“hello” in Mandarin to a Strathfield shopper. The “I’m Korean” rejoinder made it look awfully like the PM thinks all Asian either look the same or speak Mandarin.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was caught up this week in Four Corners’ investigation (‘Interference’) for his past connections to now notorious Chinese billionaire and donor Huang Xiangmo, who was barred from entering Australia in November after being rejected for a permanent residency visa on the advice of security agencies. A meeting between Dutton and Huang (and another between Huang and retiring cabinet minister Christopher Pyne) was organised for a fee by former Liberal senator turned lobbyist, Santo Santoro.

Former PM Malcolm Turnbull has since leapt at the chance to needle Dutton, who was behind the spill that saw him kicked out of The Lodge in 2018. At a speaking engagement in Sydney, Turnbull said:

“Look, Peter Dutton has got a lot to explain about this. He is supposed to be the minister responsible for the domestic security of Australia, he is supposed to be the minister responsible for ensuring our politics is not influenced by foreign actors.”

And Turnbull is dead right. The Four Corners program, a joint effort with Nine’s Nick McKenzie, also pointed to Tony Abbott, who has been linked to a Chinese influence peddler — media mogul and casino boss, Tommy Jiang. Abbott also rubbed shoulders with other figures connected to the ruling Communist Party during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.

Now the Coalition is now trying to retrain the spotlight on opposition leader Bill Shorten, who had lunch with Huang in 2015 following a $55,000 donation to Labor. This tit for tat is missing the point of course. It’s about the breadth and depth of Chinese influence and apparent ability to pull strings due to some stonking political funding. While that has become a thing of the past with Turnbull’s new foreign political donations laws, influence will find ways as needs be.

This comes after a fortnight of the major parties engaging in a chest-beating contest about who loves China the most — with Shorten gushing that he welcomed China’s rise and Scott Morrison throwing $44 million at a new Australia-China Foundation. There is little news about the foundation, which appears to be a continuation of the government’s policy of press release strategy. Yet none of this will make one jot of difference in the face of dramatic government interventions such as the one on telecommunications networks.

There have been other issues bubbling away, such as the strange case of Virgin Australia’s secretive new pilot training school being built near Tamworth, in Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England. The school is in partnership with Chinese conglomerate, HNA, which is linked to the provincial government in southern Hainan province. This connection was told only to Chinese language media and not mainstream Australian media. One suspects it the tip of another iceberg.

But perhaps even more pressing were comments made by Nick Warner, the Director General of National Intelligence, in an interview with Geraldine Doogue on Radio National. Warner outlined the six major security threats to Australia, at least three of which have China front and centre. Despite couching most of these problems as related to China-US relations, it was China that got all the airplay from Warner (perhaps unfairly, according to some observers).

It’s interesting timing by a senior bureaucrat — now one of Canberra’s most powerful — and it’s hard to think it’s a coincidence.

It may be further evidence that Australian security authorities are so concerned about China that they are prepared to go public and make the government – and opposition – confront a thorny issue no politician wants to go anywhere near during an election campaign.

Good luck with that.

A shorter version of this article also appeared in Crikey.

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