Australia-China ties have been hit by mutual suspicions. Photo: Facebook

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

In 2014, both sides claimed they were engaged in a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” Now, mistranslations and distortions of Chinese statements, deliberate or otherwise, are poisoning bilateral relations.      

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

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 by the Chinese side. They were in keeping with the rather mousy Wang, whose far-from-aggressive personality was in clear view, up close, when he was ambassador to Japan from 2004-7, a turbulent period in Japan-China relations.  

This was not the way most of Australia’s headline-grabbing journalists saw the statement, however. According to their interpretation, Wang had made a series of totally unacceptable “demands” seeking “unilateral concessions” – or so they said.

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

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi wasn’t as demanding as the Australian press made him out to be. Image: Twitter

In each case he simply said yao. Any Chinese speaker can tell you that means “want” or “request.” When used without a subject (as in this case), it 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 congratulation, yet another mysterious non-Chinese speaking “China expert” from the Fairfax media stable, Peter Hartcher, let rip.

“Pretending to offer the hand of friendship, [the Chinese] are in fact demanding the full kowtow…they are seeing whether the Australian government will crack,” he stated. 

It is curious how Western media consistently report Beijing or Moscow’s statements of position as “testing Western resolve.” And Australian media have been on an especially aggressive run when it comes to China. 

There had been another false drama two years earlier that has had ramifications to this day.

In 2020, an Australian TV reporter asked a Chinese embassy staffer at a hotel meeting the reasons for China’s A$20 billion 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 on Australia’s sovereignty.

Manufactured grievances

Perhaps the staffer was, indeed, at fault. Yet this high-profile list was never formally endorsed by Beijing or even by the staffer’s boss, the Chinese acting ambassador to Australia.

Even today – and even though the former Scott Morrison government, which waged a verbal war with China, has been voted out of office – the succeeding Albanese administration in Canberra still insists on telling Aussies 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, Albanese’s response last week was punchy. “Look, Australia doesn’t respond to demands,” he said. “We respond to our own national interests.”

New Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have already moved to address China’s rising influence in the Pacific. Image: Screengrab / ABC

For years after the 1971 “ping pong diplomacy” that re-started relations between China and the United States, US ally Australia had enjoyed fair relations with Beijing. Exchanges flourished and 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 did 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 rapidly downhill. However, relations had already been heading south.  

For years, Australia’s trigger-happy spy agencies 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.

The Covid probe demand was the final straw. Beijing decided it had had enough and began to cut imports of Australian goods in a retaliatory measure.

It’s all grim stuff. But none of this would have happened if the bedrock of bilateral relations had not been so shaky from the start. 

Foundation of ill will

Canberra has a long and inglorious tradition of indulging anti-Chinese suspicions and behaviors. 

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

During the Vietnam War, Canberra had even been to the right of Washington, believing the conflict to be Beijing’s first southwards move to invade Australia.

Its overall sense of big-picture geopolitics was no sounder.

In November 1964, I was present at a secret Kremlin meeting where then-Australian foreign minister Paul Hasluck had tried to persuade Moscow to join forces and 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, moreover, Moscow wished Beijing would do more.

Then there was the game-changing diplomatic breakthrough between Beijing and Washington in 1971.

Instead of responding to the Chinese invitation to send a table tennis team to Beijing, Canberra, unlike everyone else, tried secretly to have the team go to Taiwan rather than China. I saw 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. That led to the opening of diplomatic relations in 1972.

And yet, in the decades since, the Australian media, and relatedly public opinion, always remained suspicious of Beijing despite the massive growth in bilateral trade, tourism and exchanges.

A woman walks by Chinese language advertisements for Australian property in Sydney’s Chinatown on June 21, 2017. Photo: AFP / William West

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 capture of secrets – for latent anti-China attitudes to flare into the open again.

The rest is (recent) history. The ill will that has transitioned across from the Morrison to the Albanese administration shows how deep-rooted it is.

There could be more to come. And what is truly worrying is that this situation could move from farce into far more dangerous territory – as witnessed in the recent military encounter between an Australian destroyer and Chinese naval forces.  

Gregory Clark (www.gregoryclark.net) is a former Australian diplomat with Chinese and Russian experience. He moved to Japan in 1969 as correspondent for The Australian followed by appointments as professor at two Japanese universities and president of Tokyo’s Tama University.