Modern Australian

Officials' engagement with China especially important in tense times: Morrison

  • Written by Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has encouraged federal public servants to engage with their Chinese counterparts, saying these are important connections particularly given the tensions in the bilateral relationship.

Answering a question during a virtual forum on Wednesday with federal bureaucrats, Morrison said officials were not burdened like ministers or prime ministers with “the overlays of the international relations”.

“One of the advantages that you would have is to be able to engage on the technical, on the direct, leverage on the relationships that you already have.

"I would see that as an important connection, particularly at a time when there are tensions – and of course there are tensions,” Morrison said. “In those circumstances, we rely more on these official engagements.”

Australia’s trading relationship with China is presently bedevilled by the imposition of impediments on a range of Australian exports; Trade Minister Simon Birmingham and other ministers have not been able to get their phone calls returned by their Chinese counterparts.

Speaking earlier this week, Morrison emphasised that Australia “desires an open, transparent and mutually beneficial relationship with China as our largest trading partner”.

The Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department, Frances Adamson, said in a Wednesday speech that China may now wrongly believe it can largely set its terms of future engagement with the world.

Adamson said with its rising economic weight “unsurprisingly … China wants to set, rather than merely adopt, international standards. China wants to lead, rather than simply join, international institutions.”

China’s economic recovery from the COVID crisis would be important in how the region and the world came out “from what threatens to be a long and uneven recovery from the COVID-recession,” she said.

“But the questions around China are much more wide-ranging than simply its economic approach. No power this large and globally integrated can escape scrutiny or debate,” she said.

“The rest of the world has done a lot of thinking about China’s power and what it means.

"But it is less apparent that China has carefully considered other countries’ reactions to its conduct internationally. China may have reached a point where it believes that it can largely set the terms of its future engagement with the world.

"If it has, it is mistaken – and that is because there is far more to be gained for China, and for everyone else, through working constructively and collaboratively within the international system, without resort to pressure or coercion.”

At the public service forum, the CEO of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, Wez Norris, said for those in the “weeds” of Australia’s administrative dealings with China “there doesn’t appear to be a lot of consistency in … how we go about trading off things like domestic commercial interests against our wider trade and relationship interests”.

Morrison said in his reply that the Chinese government had said publicly that “they are not engaging in any sort of political activity in relation to these quite specific issues that are arising in trade.

"Well, we take that at face value, but that is a line and a position that I would have thought that officials can actually repeat in being able to engage on the technicalities.

"Whether it’s dealing with issues on barley or fisheries or any of these sorts of things where there are technical matters being raised … we’ve just got to work the problem.

"That’s what I’m relying on officials to do. I’m not asking officials to solve the international relations issue, that falls to me and ministers and others.”

Morrison said it was “a complex and … difficult environment”. His message to the officials was “keep up the connections and do all you can to improve them and keep the dialogue going at that level, because business and industry are relying on that to enable us to try and mitigate the impact of some of these measures that are being introduced” by the Chinese.

The “stuff” that went on between politicians and leaders was “not something that should have to trouble the working relationship that you’re engaged in”.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said Morrison should do more to seek to resolve the problems in the trading relationship with China “at leadership level”.

Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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