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Australia in the World: Episode 56

15 Sep 2020
By Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA and Dr Darren Lim
The main entrance to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra
Source: Nick-D,

Aussie journalists depart China (and other bilateral tensions); Foreign Relations Bill; Abe’s legacy; Tony Abbott.

Recording early afternoon on Wednesday 7 September, Allan and Darren begin by grappling with the previous day’s news of the arrival back in Australia of the last two China correspondents from Australian media outlets: the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the AFR’s Mike Smith. Darren tries to piece together his own theory of what happened, and Allan offers some insight on the mechanics behind DFAT’s role in cases like these, both in warning Australians of risks, and then the decision to shelter them, in this case while negotiating their safe departure from China. Note that the conversation occurred before more details emerged of allegations by PRC state media of “raids” on PRC journalists in Australia by national security agencies, and news of the cancellation of visas for two Chinese scholars.

The discussion turns next to the speech delivered by the Deputy Head of Mission at the Chinese embassy, Wang Xining, at the National Press Club in late August. Allan explains the types of constraints on all diplomats in giving a speech like this, and both he and Darren agree that the prepared text did seem to lean more towards conciliatory than provocative. In the context of a very low month in the bilateral relationship, which also included new investigations into Australian wine exports, the detention of another Australian citizen, CGTN anchor Cheng Lei, and Australia’s blocking of an acquisition by a PRC company of a Japanese-owned milk processing company on national interest grounds, they wonder whether the speech will have any lasting impact. In light of some recent analysis Darren asks, is Australia only recently “standing up” to China, or has Australia’s approach been consistent, as claimed by PM Morrison?

Allan and Darren both weigh on the Foreign Affairs Bill announced by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister recently, which if it becomes law is expected to enable Canberra to cancel the Belt and Road Initiative MOU signed by the State of Victoria. As a historian of Australian foreign policy, Allan cannot recall a single issue where state actions have been a real problem for Australian foreign policy, and he observes that the “national interest” test could be wielded in very different ways by different governments into the future.

Finally, the two discuss the legacy of retiring Japanese Prime Minster Abe Shinzo, and Allan offers his view on the merits of former PM Tony Abbott taking a position advising the UK government on trade policy.

We thank AIIA intern Mitchell McIntosh for his help with research and audio editing and XC Chong for research support. Thanks as always to Rory Stenning for composing our theme music.

Relevant Links

Matthew Doran and Stephen Dziedzic, “Australian correspondents Bill Birtles and Mike Smith pulled out of China after five-day diplomatic standoff over national security case”, ABC News, 8 September 2020:

“Political retaliation: China correspondent Bill Birtles on being forced home under threats from Beijing”, ABC PM (Radio), 8 September 2020:

Jade Macmillan, “Cheng Lei, Australian anchor detained in Beijing, accused of ‘endangering China’s national security’”, ABC News, 8 September 2020:

Global Times, “Australian agents raid Chinese journalists’ residences, seize computers ‘in violation of legitimate rights’: source”, 8 September 2020:

Wang Xining, “China and Australia: Where to from here?”, Address at the National Press Club, 26 August 2020:

Phillip Coorey, “Morrison sticks to new China doctrine”, Australian Financial Review, 31 August 2020:

Kirsy Needham, “Special Report: Australia faces down China in high-stakes strategy”, Reuters, 4 September 2020:

Elena Collinson and James Laurenceson, “Australia-China Monthly Wrap-Up: August 2020”, Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), 3 September 2020:

Fergus Ryan, Audrey Fritz and Daria Impiombato, “TikTok and WeChat: Curating and controlling global information flows”, ASPI Policy Brief 37/2020, 8 September 2020:

PM Scott Morrison and FM Marise Payne, Press Conference, Australian Parliament House, 27 August 2020:

Melissa Conley-Tyler, “Morrison’s foreign relations bill should not pass parliament. Here’s why”, The Conversation (AU), 7 September 2020:

Leader, “Abe Shinzo’s legacy is more impressive than his muted exit suggests”, The Economist, 3 September 2020:

Kevin Rawlinson and Heather Stewart, “No 10 urged to revoke trade role for ‘misogynist’ Tony Abbott”, The Guardian, 3 September 2020:

“Adam Tooze on the geopolitics of the pandemic”, Sinica Podcast, 6 August 2020:

“Adam Tooze on our financial past and future”, Conversations with Tyler podcast, 6 May 2020:

“Nuzzel” app: