Penny Wong has extended some choice words to Prime Minister Scott Morrison over his handling of Australia’s rapidly disintegrating relationship with China: “Stop focusing on splashy headlines”, and work out what you’re doing.
The advice from Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokeswoman came off the back of last week’s erupting tensions; first triggered when a doctored image of an Australian soldier threatening an Afghan child was posted to a Chinese foreign ministry Twitter account.
The post from China’s Lijian Zhao was in response to a report last month which found “credible information” that 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murders of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.
Quick on the defence, Morrison slammed Beijing, saying it should be “utterly ashamed” for sharing the “repugnant” image and demanded an apology.
Needless to say, this public chastising was not received well.
A series of sinister cartoons were shared across state-owned newspapers in China last week, including one mocking Australia’s record on human rights.
With neither country willing to budge nor open up constructive dialogue again, the situation is precarious.
“The relationship is obviously in a very difficult and challenging place,” Senator Wong told the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
“Going forward … we should assume that a more assertive, at times more aggressive China, is here to stay.”
Wong also said that bipartisan communication had dwindled in recent times; suggesting that when Julie Bishop was Foreign Minister she had regularly convened with the opposition to discuss the government’s planned response to matters like these but that “regrettably that doesn’t happen much” anymore.
“I think generally it’s good practise on these issues, when you are dealing with an assertive, at times aggressive, great power– which is China, for there to be stronger engagement with the opposition. I think that would be helpful,” Wong said.
“And I do recall many occasions in which Ms Bishop — and we had a fair few ‘ding dong’ battles– but she would call me and we would talk through how we might deal with particular issues.
“I regret that doesn’t happen now.”
According to Wong, the focus from the Morrison government should now be on forming a strategy to navigate next steps.
“Australia has become more and more economically dependent on China. In fact, we are the country that is most economically dependent on China,” she said. “So I think it is legitimate to say, ‘where is the government’s strategy for diversifying our exports? Where is the government’s strategy for the effects of a more assertive China?”
Labor would work towards a calm and measured response, working with allied and aligned nations in the Asia Pacific region as well exporters.
“This government has a reflex toward announcements and seeking the splashy headlines rather than focusing on both how the tone of the response and whether a response is actually in the national interest,” said Wong.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra accused the PM of “another attempt to stoke domestic nationalism”.
“The accusations made are simply to serve two purposes. One is to deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities by certain Australian soldiers. The other is to blame China for the worsening of bilateral ties,” it said.
One thing’s for sure: knee-jerk reactions like the Prime Minister’s are never going to prove fruitful.