Australia – China Relations; Lost in Translation

Australia’s relations with China were always prickly.  Now they are slipping into farce. 

In 2014 both claimed a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” Now, mistranslations and distortions of Chinese statements, deliberate or otherwise, are allowed constantly to poison relations between two countries.

An example of the mistranslation game in action was when Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the recent G20 meeting in Jakarta on July 8.

Wang  made what should have been seen as four requests for an improvement in relations: 1. Australia  should regard China as a partner and not a rival; 2: It should  seek common ground and reserve differences; 3:  It should avoid aiming at others and being controlled by others; and 4: It should try to build a foundation of practical public support.

All in all a bunch of fairly anodyne statements in keeping with the rather mousy Wang – whose far-from-aggressive personality was in clear view, close up, when he was ambassador to Japan from 2004-7, during a turbulent period in Japan-China relations.  

That was not the way most of Australia’s headline grabbing journalists saw matters. According to their interpretation, Wang had made a series of totally unacceptable “demands” seeking “unilateral concessions.” they said.

But when we look at the actual words Wang used in issuing his statement we find that his tone was – in Chinese – reasonable.

In each case he simply said “yao” which any Chinese speaker can tell you means “want,” or ‘request’ and which, without a subject (as in this case), implies rather politely that “this is the way things should be.

Two weeks earlier when Chinese premier Li Keqiang sent the new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese,  a note of congratulations yet another mysterious non-Chinese speaking, “China expert” from the Fairfax media stable, Peter Hartcher, had claimed

‘Pretending to offer the hand of friendship, they (the Chinese) are, in fact demanding the full kowtow…they are seeing whether the Australian government will crack’ 

It is curious how Western media consistently report Beijing or Moscow statements of position as “testing Western resolve.”
This is not the first time The Australian media has been so aggressive. 

There had been another false drama two years earlier in 2020 when an Australian TV reporter asked a Chinese embassy staffer at a hotel meeting the reasons for China’s $20 billion AUD cutbacks in purchases of Australian goods. He got an informal reply listing 14 “grievances.” 

Overnight the rather casual staffer’s list mutated into a 14-point “charge sheet” of unacceptable Beijing demands infringing Australia’s sovereignty.

Perhaps the staffer was, indeed, at fault. Even so, the list was never formally endorsed by Beijing or even by the staffer’s boss, the Chinese acting ambassador to Australia.

Even though the Scott Morrison government which went to verbal war with China has been voted out of office, the new Anthony Albanese government in Canberra is still telling us how firmly it is standing up to Beijing’s ‘totally unacceptable 14 point demands’.  

Replying to a press question about the several recent overtures from Beijing, including a message of congratulations from Chinese premier, Le Kejiang, Mr Albanese last week said rudely “Look, Australia doesn’t respond to demands. We respond to our own national interests.”

For years since 1971’s “Ping pong Diplomacy” that reastrated relations between China and the United States, Australia had enjoyed quite good relations with Beijing. Exchanges flourished. Trade boomed.

So where did it all go wrong? The Australian side says it was Beijing’s unreasonable reaction to Canberra’s call for a search to find the origins of the Covid-19 virus.  In fact Beijing would have had no problem with such a call – after all, it was making the same call itself. 

What upset Beijing was the way Canberra had moved immediately, almost in lockstep, with a March 2021 accusation by then-US President Donald Trump.

Trump had called for a search into Beijing’s responsibility for the “Chinese virus” outbreak. Australia had, in effect, thrown its lot in with America’s anti-China diplomacy.

That sent things downhill. For years Australia’s trigger-happy spy agencies that had been blocking Chinese investments in Australia, conducting witch-hunts against academics accused of suspiciously close ties with China and raiding the offices of Chinese journalists in Australia.

Beijing finally decided it had had enough and began to cut imports of Australian goods in retaliation.

But none of this would have happened if the bedrock of relations had not been so insecure from the start. 

Canberra has a long tradition of anti-China behaviors. 

As Canberra’s China desk officer in the sixties I had seen how Canberra picked up a probing 1962 Indian move across the MacMahon borderline into Chinese Himalayan territory and turned into Chinese unprovoked “aggression.”

Canberra had been to the right, even of Washington, over the Vietnam War, believing the war was Beijing’s first southwards move to invade Australia.

And its overall sense of big-picture geopolitics was no sounder. 

In November 1964 I was present at a secret Kremlin meeting where an Australian foreign minister – Paul Hasluck – had tried to persuade Moscow to join the West in Vietnam to prevent Chinese “aggression” in Vietnam.

He had to be reminded by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that it was Moscow that was providing most of the aid to Hanoi – and Moscow wished Beijing would do more.

Canberra had even been to the right of the US over the 1971 pingpong breakthrough: Instead of responding to the Chinese invitation to send a table tennis team to Beijing, Canberra, unlike everyone else,  had tried secretly to have the team go to Taiwan rather than China: I had seen the Taiwan visas in the team’s passports. 

In the event it was only when the US team showed up in Beijing for its historic visit that I was able to persuade the team to go to China, which led eventually to the opening of diplomatic relations in 1972.

In the decades since, the Australian media, and relatedly public opinion, had always remained suspicious of Beijing despite the massive trade, tourism and human ties that had grown between them.  

It required only some close cooperation between the Australian and US security agencies during the Trump period – dubious allegations of spying, political bribery, and stealth of secrets – for the anti-China attitudes to flare out into the open again.