5 June 2019
On Monday morning, Sydney residents woke to discover that three Chinese warships had entered Sydney Harbour. The ships, carrying 730 officers and sailors, docked at the Garden Island Naval Precinct for a four-day stopover. Canberra did not announce the visit, leading to anxious and curious news headlines, followed by Scott Morrison’s attempt to downplay the arrival. “It may have been a surprise to others, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise to the government,” he said.
At an Asia Society event last November, Morrison claimed that managing Australia’s relationship with China involves speaking plainly and being “really clear about where the lines are, where the rules are, how we make decisions”. This is a sensible idea, but he appears reluctant to follow it.
The Chinese naval visit should have been presented as welcome news for Australia. Maintaining close military ties with a potential adversary is, in many ways, more important than doing so with a friend. Developing strong lines of communication and trust can prevent dangerous miscalculations. Last week, for instance, Australian navy helicopters in the South China Sea were reportedly targeted by lasers from Chinese fishing boats. Beijing later denied the incident. Whatever the case, the risk of a flare-up is reduced if military leaders on both sides know one another and can quickly discuss such events.
Canberra’s silence is typical of the current approach to the People’s Republic. On Monday, during Morrison’s visit to the Solomon Islands – a trip aimed primarily at ensuring China does not erode Australia’s influence in the Pacific – he avoided discussing concerns about China’s rivalry with the United States or its record on human rights. Morrison’s visit happened to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hours before Morrison’s press conference in the Solomon Islands, China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, made rare public comments about the massacre, saying it was “correct” and had provided China with stability. Asked about these remarks and about China’s mass detention of Uighurs, Morrison opted for obfuscation. He endorsed a tepid statement about Tiananmen Square by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who had said that Australia was “concerned” about China’s constraints on freedom. But he avoided stating his or Australia’s position. This was hardly consistent with his commitment to being “really clear about where the lines are”.
For Australia, which did so much to show solidarity with the Tiananmen victims, the anniversary is a grim reminder that such repression continues and that relations with China are complicated by sharp differences on human rights. This presents a challenge to Australian leaders, who want to demonstrate a commitment to national values but do not want to risk trade flows. Currently, as Morrison indicated this week, they are responding with silence. But this fails on two fronts: it adds to public anxieties in Australia and it does not convey the country’s concerns to Beijing.
Each June, China commemorates the Tiananmen anniversary with an enforced act of collective amnesia. Censors work overtime, activists are detained, and Chinese leaders look elsewhere. Inside China, this brazen reshaping of history has been worryingly successful. Anecdotally, younger Chinese are either ignorant of the massacre, nervous to discuss it, or believe it was in China’s best interests. Outside China, this control of information has the opposite effect: it demonstrates the Communist Party’s repressive rule and adds to fears about its growing power and influence.
Morrison does not need to mirror China’s Tiananmen silence. Instead, he should clearly and unapologetically articulate Australia’s values and outlook, and the ways in which it will cooperate with or differ from China. This will not only send a message to China but to the Australian public. It need not be threatening nor confrontational. Chinese warships, unlike the great Tiananmen Square erasure, are not always a cause for alarm.