Morrison’s Unfortunate Australia-China Spat

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Do Western Politicians Always Have the Nous to Handle China? 

Op/ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has managed to put his country in the firing lines of Beijing, triggering a war of words that has seen China respond with trade threats.

But what is the real scene – behind the scene? While the diplomatic spat has been unfortunate and some of the rhetoric undiplomatic and rude, the original Australian perspective could have been better phrased, while the Chinese have also been thin-skinned about this, and rather coarse.

The problem with the current crop of democracy in the West is that with the larger turnover of politicians, there is little time to build individual relationships. Morrison’s limited China experience led him to almost demand from Beijing a call to open up an enquiry – something China will always react to as ‘interfering with internal affairs’. Morrison should have presented his (otherwise legitimate) view as a softer suggestion to Beijing, perhaps privately. Beijing will see him as having no right to comment on matters concerning what China should or shouldn’t do in a format that didn’t include any input from China beforehand. He forced their hand, and that is not how you deal with China. Its basic poker playing versus a mahjong state of mind, and it doesn’t work.

In being a little less subtle, Morrison put immediate global pressure on China, and poured oil on the flames of Trumps (apparently untrue) allegations COVID-19 could have been weaponized. Morrison failed to predict the resulting reactions. It was not an ideal statement to make in that form, and he ought to have known better. Beijing has a point. Morrison also missed an opportunity – to been seen to have assisted opening up the doors for a global team to look at the pandemic. Instead, his clumsiness has now made that far more difficult.

However, it is also true that diplomatically, China remains immature, and needs to learn to be above such name-calling and brush off minor and ill-defined criticism. By almost instantly referring to trade as a weapon, they are only following Trump’s trade war path, which they are also vehemently against. So, the Chinese response towards Australia is both over the top and something of a conundrum.

Morrison fanned the flames of China-US mistrust. Intentionally or not, that was always going to be unwise. He also appeared to make a public demand from China, rather than make a friendly, perhaps private suggestion, which was also inopportune. China has responded in an undiplomatic manner, which has its own quirks as concerns the official policy of win-win in trade as laid down by Chinese President Xi, as it apparently contradicts these.

So, what you have is a situation where what was actually said becomes irrelevant: the manner in which it was said and the fallout from that has become the focal point. It is a diplomatic war of words, nothing else, and in my view China’s stance is intended to encourage Morrison to be more discreet about his comments. It will die down. Morrison also needs to learn that dealing with Beijing is not like dealing with Australian politicians. It requires a far greater level of diplomatic sophistication. One wonders if he has the social and personal credentials.

But back to Australia, and the background of the people concerned. Morrison is an elected politician so his destiny will be determined later at the polls.

However, if Beijing is not satisfied with their Ambassador to Australia, he will be quietly retired. A quick look at his career history (did any Australian journalists bother?) and it appears to me that he’s at the end of his career and a posting to Australia was a final pat on the back.

The Australian Ambassadorship is Cheng Jingye’s first country position, and at age 61 he’s old school. His previous positions were mainly lobbying roles concerning arms control at the UN. Essentially, he’s a China career negotiator, and primed to defend China’s position.

Yet his background is not in diplomacy – which may explain the blunt trade threats. He’s been Ambassador since 2016, so is probably due for retirement anyway. If he goes quietly later this year, which is what I would expect will happen, that will tell you the story about how Beijing really views the spat. I’d give you 70 percent odds that he’s quietly gone by October.

But what can we expect from a heavily US-influenced, Western media platform, that seems to view life in black and white, good/bad guy terms as portrayed in Hollywood superhero movies? COVID-19 media is demanding a bad guy, and punishment to be extracted, and it’s not entirely unreasonable for Beijing to resist that.

In terms of the rhetoric, it’s also true to say that both countries’ politicians are under stress right now. It is also probably wise to cut them a bit of slack and not look too deeply into the nuances. We are a long way off from an Australian-China trade war, although it is also true that Western global media is perhaps rather too keen on finding good guys and bad guys, and China is definitely on the wrong side of that fence with COVID-19 at present, rightly or wrongly.

At the end of the day, it’s a storm in a teacup. China’s inflammatory comments were made by a tough China career negotiator unused to diplomatic niceties and at the end of his term. Morrison though needs to go on a course on how to deal with Beijing and fast, and think hard before he speaks. He’s just made it more difficult for everyone to deal with a global pandemic, while trying to be seen as a tough guy. It failed. It will blow over, but it was entirely unnecessary to begin with. That buck stops on the Australian PM’s desk, not Beijing’s.

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About Us

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Founding Partner and Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm handles foreign, including Australian investment, into China and Asia and has done since 1992. Please contact us at or visit us at for assistance.