Six years and four prime ministers ago Kevin Rudd was serving his first term as leader of Australia’s presiding Labor Party. During that time he copped plenty of flak from the opposing Liberal Party, which even turned his Mandarin-speaking skills against him. Dubbed in the right-wing press “The Manchurian Candidate”, Rudd was chastised by the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, and reminded that he was not “a roving ambassador for the People’s Republic of China” (see WiC9).
The leadership torch has now passed to Turnbull himself, with speculation that he might take a more accomodating approach towards China than his predecessor, Tony Abbott. At the ASEAN East Asian summit in 2013 Abbott dubbed Japan – Australia’s second biggest trade partner – as its “closest friend in Asia”. The Chinese media, professing to be hurt, sharpened its criticism of the Australian prime minister, with the Global Times regretting to inform its readers that Abbott had even praised the “skills and honour” of Japanese troops during the Second World War.
Turnbull’s own stance on Second World War valour is more to Beijing’s taste. In August – as if wanting to show Abbot up – he hailed China’s “endurance and courage” in facing Japan’s wartime aggression and reminded his audience of China’s role as Australia’s “staunch, indefatigable ally”. Turnbull’s son is married to a mainland Chinese and Turnbull is said to have lobbied against a ban that prevented Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, from working on a national broadband network. And like many Australian politicians, he has been vocal about the need to increase Australia’s service exports to China beyond the current concentration on education and tourism, especially with declines in Chinese demand for Australiam coal.
Few of China’s netizens know much if anything about Turnbull, of course, although some have now christened him “Sugar Bun” in a pun on the sound of his surname in Chinese.
But any sense that Australia’s new leader will be readier to sweet talk Beijing was dropped earlier this week, when he was openly critical of China’s policy of island-building in waters disputed with its neighbours.
“China would be better advised, in its own interest frankly, not to be pushing the envelope [in the South China Sea],” he told an interviewer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“What the island construction and all of the activity in the South China Sea has done has resulted in the smaller countries surrounding that area turning to the US even more than they did before.”
The advice was amplified by the newly appointed Defence Minister, Marise Payne, who described it as “a key indication of where we intend to take [relations]” to the local media.
The comments elicited a swift response from China’s Foreign Ministry, which reminded Australia to “honour its commitment of not taking sides on issues concerning sovereignty disputes”.
Turnbull’s first major test on Chinese investment in Australia is also imminent, with a Chinese group looking to acquire land owned by Australia’s largest landholder, S. Kidman & Co.
The areas in question, valued at A$325million ($226 million), encroach upon the Woomera Prohibited Area – a military rocket-testing site. In 2009 Kevin Rudd’s government blocked a deal with China’s Minmetals on the grounds that it incorporated parts of the same area, compromising national security. Don Manifold, who is running the Kidman side of the sales process, says that security concerns won’t be the same issue this time around. But with the mood already a little strained after Turnbull’s unexpectedly forthright stance on the South China Sea, the new prime minister may find the deal another source of tension with Beijing.
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