China’s Sichuan province is famed for its fine cuisine. People from that region also take pride in Pulling Masks. In this stage manoeuvre derived from Sichuanese opera that dates back 800 years, performers rapidly alternate layers of paper-thin masks, using imperceptible tugs on a chord hidden beneath the folds of their fabulous costumes to produce dramatic face changes.
Australia has become a cornucopia of all things Chinese, from yum cha to Huawei smartphones, but Sichuan’s Pulling Mask routine is not yet commonplace. When it comes to relations with Beijing, however, we live in a world of Pulling Masks.
On August 1 the Melbourne-based The Monthly magazine published a cover story on troubled China-Australian relations headlined “The Reset”. Six days later Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered a major speech – billed a “reset” – on Australia’s relations with our most important trading partner.
It was like one shoe dropping after another.
The trouble with that conclusion though is that the two “resets” seemed to be diametrically opposed. The 6000-word essay in The Monthly traced the events that culminated in the emergence of Australia’s tough new foreign interference laws. These are effectively, if not explicitly, aimed at curbing Chinese influence in Australia.
By contrast, Turnbull’s speech at the University of NSW on Tuesday was positive, lauding China’s “remarkable success”. Engaging in a sort of mono-Malcolm Q&A, he asked if China will try to influence “other countries that its point of view is correct? Will it try to get the best deal it can in trade? Of course it will, like everybody else does.”
Closer examination, however, shows these apparently polar opposite “resets” form part of a local diplomatic version of Pulling Masks, where the face behind the mask remains the same.
To find the face behind the mask we need look no further than John Garnaut, author of “The Reset“ essay in The Monthly. Garnaut has had a significant, if somewhat elusive, role in the dramatic escalation of Australian-Chinese tensions. His influence is less obvious in Turnbull’s tension-easing keynote address to the University of NSW. However, what can be called the “Garnaut effect”, or the rising tensions between both countries and the passing of tough foreign interference laws in Australia, led to the need for Turnbull’s more conciliatory tone in Tuesday’s speech.
To understand how this trajectory from largely happy trading partners to deep mutual distrust, back to Sino-Australian smiles, materialised, it’s helpful to trace Garnaut’s career path over the past decade or so. Son of Professor Ross Garnaut, who was both an adviser to Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, and a former Australian ambassador to China, John Garnaut was an outstanding Beijing-based correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald for seven years, starting in 2007.
A hard worker, born networker, excellent wordsmith, charming and passionate, he had a standing start as correspondent, enjoying privileged access to senior Chinese cadres in Beijing while at the same time developing excellent contacts with liberal Chinese intellectuals and influential figures from China-based Western intelligence agencies.
As the years progressed, the experience at the coal face of being a foreign correspondent in another country deeply affected Garnaut. His focus changed, as did his attitude towards what was really going on in the Middle Kingdom. He shifted from concentrating on the reporting of the remarkable, sustained surge in China’s economy after the 2008 GFC, to focusing on high-level corruption in the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), ruthless intrigue among members of the CPC’s upper echelons, and the increasing crackdown on dissidents.
Towards the end of his Beijing posting, Garnaut started work on his ground-breaking book on the downfall of onetime Shanghai Party boss, Bo Xilai. Titled The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, it covered, according to Penguin Books, “an extraordinary tale of excess, murder, defection, political purges and ideological clashes going back to Mao himself, as the princeling sons of the revolutionary heroes ascend to control the party”.
More influential role
Returning to Australia, Garnaut joined Turnbull’s office staff as speechwriter, soon after Turnbull secured the top job by defeating Tony Abbott as leader in a Liberal Party room vote on September 14, 2015. Garnaut worked initially on Turnbull’s speeches, but his role broadened into one that was more influential, particularly on issues relating to Australia’s relations with China.
In August, 2016, Garnaut switched to the Prime Minister’s Department at the same time as Turnbull commissioned that department to prepare a report on Australia’s relations with China. As work on the report progressed, it is no coincidence that a hardening attitude towards China’s spreading influence in Australia began to emerge in Canberra. It was an attitude that was a more accurate reflection of the views of the Defence Department, intelligence agencies like ASIO, and the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Garnaut, rather than the more measured Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The principal inputs into work on the China relations report were made by ASIO, the Office of National Assessments – Australia’s premier intelligence assessment agency – and Garnaut.
Just as the China report was being completed, in June 2017, Turnbull attended the Shangri-La dialogue on regional security in Singapore. In a keynote speech written by Garnaut, he bluntly warned: “Some fear that China will seek to impose a latter-day Monroe Doctrine on this hemisphere in order to dominate the region.
“Such a dark view of our future would see China isolating those who stand in opposition to or are not aligned with its interests while using its economic largesse to reward those toeing the line, ” Turnbull said.
Back in Australia, meanwhile, ASIO warned of widespread Chinese interference in our domestic affairs, and a dramatic Fairfax Media-ABC Four Corners report was produced on the same issue.
Echoes of Mao Tse Tung
And in December, while campaigning ahead of the Bennelong byelection, Turnbull declared in Mandarin that he would “stand up for Australia” echoing the words used by Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung after the communist takeover at the beginning of 1949. He said China had been interfering in Australian politics, citing the example of disgraced former Labor senator Sam Dastiyari. ASIO also reported it had identified 10 candidates in state and local politics who it believed had close ties to Chinese intelligence services.
Moreover, Turnbull said he would not be intimidated by China expressing “strong dissatisfaction” over his remarks about foreign interference.
Garnaut left the Prime Minister’s Department after the China report was completed, moved to Melbourne and hung out a new corporate moniker as a “consultant” on global trade and investment issues. By this stage he had established an international reputation as a promoter of a tougher policy on China, and he addressed like-minded, China hard-liner, think tanks, institutes and political gatherings in the US and UK.
As Garnaut writes in The Monthly: “Belatedly, and quite suddenly, policy makers and civil society actors in a dozen nations around the world are scrambling to come to terms with a form of Chinese extraterritorial influence described variously as ‘sharp power’, ‘United Front work’, and ‘influence operations’.”
He argued in an appearance before the US House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that China promoted a “world of influence and interference” beyond the “gravitational pull” of a surging Chinese economy and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Garnaut accused the CPC of manipulating “incentives” inside Western countries “in order to shape the conversation, manage perceptions and tilt the political and strategic landscape to its advantage”.
“The party works hard to find common interests and cultivate relationships of dependency with chosen partners. The modus operandi is to offer privileged access, build personal rapport and reward those who deliver. From open source materials we know this is happening in universities, in business communities, in ethnic Chinese communities, in media and entertainment, and in politics and government.
“But the Communist Party institutions, ideologies and methodologies involved are so alien to our systems that we have been having trouble seeing them let alone responding. The party has been ‘winning without fighting’, to borrow some of its terminology,” Garnaut said.
Australia’s friendly mask appeared in Turnbull’s Tuesday speech when he said Australia “welcomed China’s remarkable success” and “embraced its many opportunities”.
Further, he said “the story of our relationship is one of how our two countries have changed and changed each other, in ways that are leading to more jobs, growth, investment, and prosperity”.
Belt and Road Initiative
Meanwhile, China was proceeding with its huge so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). What started out as a $1 trillion plan to open up road, rail, air and shipping links with Europe, the Middle East and Africa through Central Asia, has seemingly morphed into an $8 trillion octopus encircling the world.
The Chinese policy rationale for BRI is that it will free up the giant Chinese economy from relying on contested maritime seaways in the South China Sea and East China Sea by providing transport alternatives to its west.
Turnbull told his audience on Tuesday that Australia wants to work with China in the Pacific, as well as other countries including the US and Japan, “to ensure that our respective engagement, including lending, reinforces our common goals of supporting the sustainable economic development, freedom and wellbeing of the people and the nations” in the region.
However, as the Economist magazine recently pointed out, many BRI projects in poor countries are predicated on Chinese loans at commercial rates of interest, and the workers are largely Chinese. The Centre for Global Development, a think tank, has listed eight countries that have over borrowed to fund work on these same projects.
Far from an instrument for furthering Chinese power and influence throughout the world, BRI is promoted by the Chinese as a “community of shared destiny and interest”, although China can at the same time take full control of sensitive infrastructure projects if loans are not serviced.
It seems that the Mask Pulling works both ways.