A fragile China friendship

The Age (Melbourne)

June 7, 2005
‘Whether his claims are true or false, Chen Yonglin is already a bona
fide human rights cause.’
This may be the moment when Australia has to risk offending the Asian
giant, writes Tony Parkinson.
In the world of espionage, it is known as a “walk-in”, the high-anxiety
drama where a senior political, military or diplomatic figure from a
foreign power makes an unsolicited attempt to defect, promising
high-level information about unfriendly activities conducted by his or
her government in return for an offer of political sanctuary.
Typically, this becomes a celebrated event, as it was when a former
director of strategy in China’s Defence Ministry, Colonel Xu Junping,
defected to the United States in 2001. Xu arrived in Washington with a
small suitcase, and only the clothes he was wearing. But he brought with
him comprehensive details of China’s spying operations against key
strategic and industrial targets in the West, including theft of
state-of-the-art research and technology.
The colonel was given a safe house, a new identity – and an extensive
CIA debriefing – but not without causing considerable friction in
relations between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, when a US spy plane
was forced down onto the island of Hainan, there was some speculation
China might demand the repatriation of Xu in return for the American pilots.
Now, Australia has a defector crisis of its own to manage. Chen Yonglin
may not have the seniority or insights to rival Xu Junping, but the
circumstances of his case make the diplomacy no less awkward or
demanding. The Howard Government appears to be doing its utmost to keep
its official response lukewarm and low-key. But the pressure is building.
Chen claims he has knowledge of an extensive spy ring in Australia. He
says he is in fear for his life after walking out on his job as a
political counsellor at the Chinese consulate in Sydney 11 days ago. He
has since made an appearance at a public rally to mark the 16th
anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests.
Chinese officials insist that he is lying in order to secure for his
family the right to stay in Australia.
It is a case that reminds us why the relationship between Australia and
the Communist giant, although stronger today than perhaps it has ever
been, is inherently difficult.
For although a powerhouse in the trade and diplomacy of East Asia, the
Government in Beijing remains pathologically intolerant of internal
dissent, and especially prickly about its policies being held up to
scrutiny by outsiders.
To what extent will China seek to make an issue of this dissident? Would
it seriously expect Australia to cough up Chen, and see him bundled onto
a plane to face an unknown, but probably very nasty, fate back in
Beijing? If Australia grants him a protective visa, what would be the
repercussions for broader trade and strategic ties to China?
The first thing to be said is that it would be outrageous for Australia
to begin to think of sending Chen home. Whether his claims are true or
false, he is already a bona fide human rights cause.
In speaking out against his own Government, the diplomat has put himself
in great danger. This is not the fault of Chen, or of Australian policy.
It has everything to do with the Chinese Communist Party’s obsessive and
repressive efforts to quell all opposition, maintain itself in power,
and punish, often cruelly, all who question its official doctrine.
China executes more people than the rest of the world combined. Tens of
thousands of its citizens are jailed for political or religious dissent.
Workers don’t have the right to independent trade unions, and police can
arrest without cause and extend detentions for years without a court ruling.
Given that China continues to bring charges of subversion against
peaceful advocates of reform, it can be assumed that the most draconian
punishment imaginable awaits those judged to be traitors. For this
reason, no government could seriously contemplate handing Chen over.
That said, Beijing also happens to be in a bellicose mood, as
demonstrated recently when violent street protests were launched against
Japanese interests in China over the fact some Japanese school textbooks
ignored historical evidence of war crimes. It will not look kindly on
Australia granting asylum to a prominent official.
China makes no secret of its pretensions as a coming world power. It has
ambitions to become the undisputed geopolitical hub of East Asia, and it
expects others to be accommodating and respectful of its interests.
On the back of a crop of multibillion-dollar trade deals, especially in
the energy sector, China has established solid, long-term economic
relations with Australia. Beijing says it backs Australia’s full
integration into East Asia. But this is not unconditional.
There remain question marks over China’s support for an invitation to
Australia to attend the East Asian summit later this year. And Beijing
persists in putting the self-serving case that Australia would be more
welcome in the region if it proved itself more independent of US policy,
especially on the vexed question of Taiwan’s future status.
Given China’s value as a vast and lucrative market for Australia’s
energy exports, close relations have become a business imperative, and a
top priority for policymakers. But surely not at the price of being
bullied or browbeaten.
If Australia is to be a serious middle power, rather than a supplicant
in Asia, if there is to be consistency of principle and purpose to
policy, there will be moments when it is necessary to risk offending
Communist China. This is one of those moments, just as Taiwan might one
day be another.

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