On Thursday, Scott Morrison walked out into the Prime Minister’s yard and crossed into a crowded area.
He revealed Australia’s response to the Chinese Government’s crackdown on Hong Kong; especially Beijing’s single attack on the legal architecture that protects the freedom of the people who live there.
Mr Morrison announced that his Government would offer a safe place for many Hong Kong students and graduates who were already living in Australia.
Not only that, the Prime Minister said Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Soon.
In Australia’s eyes, these announcements are merely the inevitable consequence of China’s decision to break the promise it made to Britain a few decades ago, when it told the colonial powers that were leaving, it would maintain the freedom of the city for half a century.
In Chinese eyes, they are a big provocation.
But if the Prime Minister tries to be provocative, it doesn’t look like that.
The answer is very careful and measurable. Journalists asked him whether China’s crackdown endangers “One Country, Two Systems” – a principle intended to perpetuate Hong Kong’s freedom.
Mr. Morrison’s eyes repeatedly shot to the paper in front of him. He read the words in front of him very, very carefully.
Australia’s decision to suspend the extradition treaty “is an acknowledgment of a fundamental change in circumstances related to Hong Kong,” Morrison said, his eyes on the page.
The new security law imposed on the city by Beijing “damages the One Country, the framework of the Two Systems, and Hong Kong’s own basic laws and high-level autonomy guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration”.
In other words – yes.
But when you deal with the Chinese Communist Party, language problems become a problem. Precision problem.
And when you deal with Hong Kong – a place of post-colonial hatred that is still pulsating through China’s political life, and the front line in the battle between rising authoritarianism and increasingly thinning liberalism – that is very appropriate.
Is the relationship at the ‘breaking point’?
Mr. Morrison’s announcement is not nearly radical. The risks in it are calibrated correctly. Each decision is framed as an exercise in Australian sovereignty.
The urge to take skilled migrants from Hong Kong is presented primarily as a talent recruitment drive, not a mercy mission.
In contrast to Britain, Australia does not offer protection to Hong Kong residents who actually live in the city now.
Those who fear persecution and who might hope for new life in Australia are effectively told that they must join the queue.
Not that this helps avoid the Australian public’s criticism of the Chinese Government, which responds with predictable anger.
Australia was condemned from the Foreign Ministry podium in Beijing, while the Chinese Embassy in Canberra reported that the Federal Government “dropped a stone on its own feet”.
Chinese state media even said the Morrison Government pushed the relationship to a “breaking point” with editorials in the party mouthpiece, China Daily warned Australia was “irreplaceable”.
It is difficult to say how much noise and anger this was made, and how much of it came from a sincere sense of complaint. And there is no real consensus in Canberra about what will happen next, just a lot of uncertainty.
Some people are afraid that China is willing to do good for its threats. They expect Beijing to respond by continuing to escalate cyber attacks, while rapidly expanding its economic punishment campaign against Australian exporters. Anxiety about “hostage diplomacy” lingered.
But others in the bureaucracy and the Houses of Parliament became almost bored about the flow of threats emanating from the Chinese Government. Bets are taken where rococo insults will be included in the next angry letter from the embassy.
China, according to them, has been involved in dizzying disputes with countries around the world and consumed by full spectrum competition with the United States. It feels pressure.
Getting rid of Australian beef or wine is one thing, but will Beijing really choose this moment to return to the great river of iron ore and high-quality Australian coal which is still important for some of its economies?
This might be a smart bet. Or maybe it’s a terrible miscalculation.
Either way, Mr. Morrison and his key lieutenants appear to have decided that there could be no retreat with China – especially not now.
Perhaps they reasoned that weakness would only invite insult, and possibly more coercion. So they kept going forward.
That is a very important action, and the stakes are big.
No wonder the Prime Minister walked cautiously.