Beijing’s trade war against Australia has been a “failure” that could serve as a lesson to the Chinese leadership, according to former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who noted that his key approach to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to stand firm on Australian values.
Turnbull, along with former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, appeared on La Trobe University’s The Ideas and Society Program to address China and its relationship with Australia and the United States.
“This pressure campaign against Australia has been quite useful in the sense that it has demonstrated to China that they can pull all these levers, and it does not actually work. It has not actually worked,” Turnbull said.
“It has not sent Australia spiralling into a recession because of Chinese displeasure. So hopefully, that is going to be an instructive experience for them,” he said. “This bullying exercise has failed, and … it is getting written up in international journals around the world as the limits of Chinese failure.”
“You can imagine, there might be discussion in Beijing where (Chinese leader) Xi says to (Foreign Minister) Wang Yi or another international policy person, ‘Whose brilliant idea with this? Didn’t you say the Australians were going to roll over to ask and suck up to us?’”
Beijing launched an economic coercion campaign against Australia in April 2020 following calls by Foreign Minister Marise Payne for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
The move drew a sharp rebuke from Chinese Ambassador to Canberra Cheng Jingye, who warned of potential action against Australia’s trading relationship with China.
In the following months, Beijing implemented a series of bans, suspensions, or regulatory hurdles on Australian coal, wine, beef, barley, lobster, timber, lamb, and cotton exports to China. Beijing also severed all high-level diplomatic contact with the Australian federal government.
Currently, Australia has lodged two actions against the barley and wine tariffs at the World Trade Organisation, while exporters have worked hard to diversify their markets away from China.
Turnbull said that his key to dealing with Beijing was to stand firm on Australian values and not compromise.
“In early 2018, the Chinese government was very concerned that foreign interference legislation would pass. They were very critical of it, and there was quite a lot of pressure on it,” he said. “Ultimately, once it was passed, and I knew it would happen, once it was passed, it (Beijing’s rhetoric) stopped.”
The foreign interference laws were passed following revelations that Labor Senator Sam Dastyari had been influenced by Chinese billionaire—and political donor—Huang Xiangmo to advocate for Beijing on the South China Sea, even when it contradicted the official Labor Party’s stance.
Turnbull was also prime minister when Australia became the first jurisdiction in the world to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from its 5G network in 2018.
“It is an important insight. All the indignation and fury from the people in Beijing, it is instrumental. This is not a heartfelt, uncontrollable emotion, it has a purpose. And if the purpose cannot be fulfilled, they will move onto the next plan,” he said.
The former prime minister also reminded audience members to differentiate between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people.
“The Communist Party in China is very ready to say any criticism of the regime, or its policies, is anti-Chinese, right? We must not fall into that. Chinese people are part of our family, our Australian family. They are also part of Kevin’s and my family.”