- A proposed trade deal between Australia and Taiwan apparently never had a chance to see the light of day, former foreign minister Julie Bishop says.
- Bishop blamed what she said was direct and constant pressure from Beijing.
- That startling concession shines light on a sobering truth: China is comfortable exerting pressure at the very highest corridors of power in order to secure its interests.
Australia’s former foreign minister Julia Bishop says direct and consistent pressure from Beijing effectively skewered any chance Canberra had of even striking up a conversation with Taiwan on a free trade deal.
The startling concession highlights how Beijing is apparently comfortable exerting pressures at the very highest corridors of power to secure its interests.
Bishop, who served as foreign minister from 2013 to 2018, told Fairfax Media on Thursday that for two years, her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi “made it clear” that any official flirtations with the island state that China considers a rogue province would ensure that Beijing “would not look favourably on Australia.”
Those are words not to be taken lightly when the resource-rich Australian economy is beeping away on China’s life-support.
China is far and away Australia’s key economic partner. China is its largest two-way trading partner, its top export market and its biggest import source, last year generating $US129 billion USD in revenue – up 16% on 2016 – and now accounting for 24% of the country’s total trade.
“During my time as foreign minister, I observed an increasing assertiveness on the part of China to encourage nations to disengage from their relationship with Taiwan,” Bishop said in remarks that now barely illicit a cringe from Asian Pacific analysts.
“This included in the Pacific and where some nations still formally recognise Taiwan and in some of the major multilateral forums where Taiwan had observer status to participate in such meetings,” she added.
Dr. Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Macquarie said smaller nations in the region were vulnerable to an increasingly assertive Beijing.
“This is an example of the really dangerous nature of People’s Republic of China party state influence in Australia’s political system,” Dr. Carrico told Business Insider.
“Australia is a sovereign nation and can decide for itself if it would like to pursue a free-trade pact with Taiwan.”
Taiwan’s economic contribution is far from insignificant and the island nation of 23 million remains Australia’s 14th most significant business partner and one of its fastest growing.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, two-way trade in goods and services between Taiwan and Australia topped $US10.6 billion in 2017, a rise of 10.9% year-over-year, and now 2% of Australia’s total trade.
It’s a cheque, mate
While China has for decades been wielding Pacific states like chess pieces in its admirably single-minded pursuit of reintegrating “Chinese Taipei” with the mainland, this is the first time an Australian official at the very highest levels has so publicly acknowledged what so many have feared:
That the Chinese state is capable and willing to use economic threats to direct Australian foreign policy in the pursuit of its own interests from the corridors and gardens of Zhongnanhai.
Australian politics has been literally stalked in recent years by what many observers perceive as the growing shadow of Chinese influence across domestic and international policy.
Politicians have been implicated, journalists have been sued and desperate cracks have taken hold within one of the world’s most diverse and proudly multicultural of countries.
Following an investigation into the extent of foreign interference in Australia ordered by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this year, reports emerged of attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to influence “all levels” of Australian politics.
“Our system as a whole had not grasped the nature and magnitude of the threat,” Turnbull said in May, just months after a high-profile political figure was sacked and labelled a Chinese “agent of influence.”
The following week, the Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye addressed a business event that Business Insider attended at Parliament House, insisting China “never interferes in the internal affairs” of Australia or any other state.
The ambassador then told business leaders that China never exercised “so-called infiltration of other countries.”
Nevertheless, the following month, Australia passed sweeping new counterintelligence laws that broaden the powers and increase the severity of offenses within espionage and foreign influence.
And while the ever-diplomatic Turnbull said the laws did not single out any one country, there was no doubt that their target was Beijing.
Turnbull had previously remarked of “disturbing reports about Chinese influence,” and even once had a decent crack at speaking directly to camera in Mandarin to announce, quite daringly, that Australia has stood up, as China once did so famously under the leadership of Mao Zedong – “Zhong guo ren min zhanqilai!”
Without a doubt, the new laws exacerbated the already inflamed tensions with China, which, again in the words of Ambassador Chen and a state media blitz, accuses Australia of having a “Cold War mentality.”
A December 2017 editorial in the Global Times made that pretty clear.
“Australia poses a problem for China. If we mind its silly carrying-on, it will deplete our energy, and it doesn’t seem worth our while; however, if we leave it be and pretend nothing is happening, that would only encourage it, and it may go from bad to worse.”
“Australia is one of the countries that have benefited most from China’s rise, yet it is also one of the most provocative voices in the Western bloc. It is beginning to look like a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.”
It’s getting close to checkmate
Meanwhile, China has ramped right up that pressure on Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen of the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party won office in 2016, more actively blitzing Taiwan’s attempts at international engagement and looming ever larger across its domestic politics.
Tsai immediately staggered Communist Party officials by refusing to endorse the “1992 consensus,” a pillar of regional stability that enshrines the One China, Two Systems principle that provides China some flexibility with the way it deals with its various client states and wayward provinces from Hong Kong to Taipei.
And since Tsai took power in the democratic stronghold across from Fujian province, the Pacific chess game has swung strongly in China’s favour.
The Chinese government first cut off official communication with Tsai’s government and then leaned into its multilayered strategy of erasing Taiwan from the international stage and poaching its handful of remaining diplomatic allies.
In under two years, China has seduced away five Taiwanese diplomatic allies, most recently when China established ties with El Salvador, shrinking Taiwan’s diplomatic pool to just 17 allies.
In May, the West African state of Burkina Faso became the fourth country to cut ties following similar kiss-offs from diplomatic heavyweights like Panama, Sao Tome, the Dominican Republic and Principe.
Now, many of the countries with which Taiwan has formal relations worldwide are tiny, weakly developed, and highly vulnerable nations with many dotting across the Pacific like Palau and Nauru.
Climate change, seasonal typhoons?
No, it’s often the tug-of-war between Taiwan and China that makes these states especially vulnerable to systemic failings, from long-term corruption, debt-trap diplomacy, and the insidious reach of foreign influence in sovereign surrounds.
From 2000 to the opening of the Beijing Olympics, Taiwan lost nine allies to China amid a bidding war, as Taiwan also showered cash on sovereign states to gain diplomatic recognition.
There have been successes and failures on both sides.
Nauru surprised everyone when it jumped ship from China to Taiwan in 2005.
Tonga, which has voiced concerns about its growing Chinese debts, cut ties with Taiwan in 1998.
From Vanuatu to the Marshall Islands to the Solomons, China’s growing influence and Taiwan’s waning is often viewed as an opportunity to roll the dice again.
In July an airline based in the Pacific nation of Palau says it was forced to close because of China’s attempts to punish the nation for its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
And according to Business Insider’s Tara Francis Chan, China has been judicious in its application of threats, fines, public shaming, cajoling and the introduction of social credit scores for corporations to force foreign companies to adopt and adhere to its political rhetoric.
According to Dr. Carrico, Australia’s democratic values are being threatened by the intersection of China’s rising sense of its place in the world and Canberra’s own economic weaknesses.
“Taiwan is a democratic nation with which Australia shares many values, of course it is unfair to both countries to be held hostage to Beijing’s fantasy that Taiwan, never ruled by the People’s Republic of China, is somehow ‘an inalienable part of China’.”
Following demonstrations in Taipei on Saturday over the increasing threats from Beijing and as a referendum over whether Taiwan should compete as “Taiwan” or “Chinese Taipei” in international sporting events draws ever closer, Chinese golfers were pulled out en masse from an international event in Taiwan on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Beijing has also recently cut Chinese tour groups from visiting Taiwan while both sides have ratcheted up military exercises to show their respective capabilities in any Taiwan Strait conflict.
Here is a list of the remaining nations still diplomatically aligned, including their dates of engagement and re-engagement, with Taiwan as of October 2018:
- Swaziland (1968)
- Vatican City (1942)
- Kiribati (2003)
- Marshall Islands (1998)
- Nauru (1980-2002, 2005)
- Palau (1999)
- Solomon Islands (1983)
- Tuvalu (1979)
- Haiti (1956)
- Saint Kitts and Nevis (1983)
- Saint Lucia (1984-1997, 2007)
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (1981)
- Belize (1989)
- Guatemala (1933)
- Honduras (1941)
- Nicaragua (1962-1985, 1990)
- Paraguay (1957)