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Peaceful words, aggressive actions: why Beijing’s ‘thaw’ with Australia looks temporary

By Michael Shoebridge the Director of ASPI’s Defence, Strategy and National Security program – 16.06.22.

Echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s description of his war in Ukraine, China’s Xi Jinping has released a directive that licenses his armed forces to conduct ‘special military operations’.

This involves the People’s Liberation Army using force outside circumstances that other nations would consider as war. The guidance is consistent with Beijing’s recent coastguard law, which allows that well-armed organisation to use lethal force wherever China claims jurisdiction (as it does in the South China Sea despite its claims being comprehensively rejected under international law). It seems likely to apply to the Taiwan Strait if Xi persists in attempting to assert that the strait is Chinese waters, not a key international waterway.

Xi’s new directive has clear implications for the people of Solomon Islands, as it tells the PLA to use force where required to protect Chinese nationals and Chinese projects and investments. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s deal with Beijing talks about this too, so what Xi is now doing with his military will be applied in the ‘security assistance’ that China’s authoritarian forces provide in and around the Solomons. Like with the Sogavare–Beijing pact, Xi has not released the text of his directive, just had it reported in state media.

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, who said at last weekend’s Shangri La Dialogue that he wanted a new positive relationship with his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles, will implement Xi’s direction. The result will be in an even more aggressive PLA in the South China Sea, around Taiwan and Japan, and on the India–China border.

What does all this mean for the prospects of a sustained positive ‘reset’ in the bilateral relationship between Australia and China? All bad things.

It looks very likely that the reset has been gazumped by a more outwardly focused, increasingly aggressive PLA that seeks to define its use of force as ‘not war’.

Definitions that deny reality may work in the land of the Chinese Communist Party. But as Putin is experiencing with the international reaction to his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, just calling something what it is not doesn’t prove convincing anywhere in which there’s freedom of expression and media that’s not closely supervised and censored.

The Marles–Wei meeting was a positive development because it’s the only ministerial-level contact between the two countries since China began its diplomatic freeze and then its continuing campaign of economic coercion against Australia in 2020.

It’s also a positive that the meeting happened without Australia needing to show major policy change beforehand. China had demanded that Australia change its policy decisions and directions to resume dialogue—notably in Beijing’s list of ‘14 grievances’.

So, what does Beijing want as the price for resuming dialogue?

Beijing may want the warmer tone and senior meetings to make it harder for Australia to oppose China’s growing military presence in the South Pacific, and harder for Marles to end the Chinese port operator’s lease over the strategic Port of Darwin. There’s leverage there because that would give Beijing a pretext to claim Australia had ended the ‘thaw’.

Wei’s continued line in speeches and dialogues is to assert that China’s approach is one of peaceful cooperation and win–win outcomes, and that anyone noticing anything aggressive or negative in Chinese military or broader government behaviour is smearing China, hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, and adopting a destructive Cold War mindset—usually by being a slave to the US.

Wei’s Shangri-La speech takes this position. That creates a credibility gap for him in dialogue with counterparts like Marles because the PLA he directs is not behaving in any way that could be characterised as peaceful cooperation in pursuit of win–win outcomes.

Instead, the PLA’s aggression in international airspace and waterways is growing, to the extent that mid-air collisions and crashes and on-water incidents are becoming likely as China tries to enforce rights it just doesn’t have.

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Image: Feng Li/Getty Images.

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