Scott Morrison is under fire from former Coalition minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who claims the Prime Minister and his “cabinet of groupthinkers” were “outmanoeuvred by Beijing” over the visit of three Chinese warships to Sydney Harbour.
In a scathing opinion piece for The Australian today, Senator Fierravanti-Wells says the visit — which was approved but not announced — showed the government had adopted a “supine” approach to dealing with China by resorting to a policy of appeasement.
The Prime Minister downplayed the arrival of the ships on Monday, suggesting it was a routine visit and should not be the subject of “over-analysis”.
But the senator says the timing, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, “demonstrates that Beijing can dictate terms and we just acquiesce”.
“Morrison’s cabinet of groupthinkers and those responsible for the decision have sought refuge in appeasement. They were totally outmanoeuvred by Beijing,” she says.
The hard-right senator, a strident China critic and factional opponent of Mr Morrison, accuses the Prime Minister of keeping the public in the dark about the visit.
“For Morrison to dismiss the timing of the visit as a ‘reciprocal visit’ and that the task group was merely ‘returning from counter drug-trafficking operations in the Middle East’ was misleading to the Australian public,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells says.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham yesterday dismissed the attack on Mr Morrison less than a month after his unexpected election win.
“I’m not about to get into a public debate with a colleague, but we decide all the terms of our engagement (with China), and we do so seeking to ensure that the relationship is consistent, respectful and as engaging as possible,” Senator Birmingham said.
Another government MP noted that Mr Morrison stopped the sale of Australia’s biggest electricity network, Ausgrid, to Chinese buyers when he was treasurer, and was on the national security committee of cabinet when it banned Huawei from participating in the nation’s 5G network.
Balancing Australia’s relationship with its security partner, the US, and its main trading partner, China, is the government’s No 1 foreign policy challenge.
Former Joint Intelligence Organisation chief Paul Dibb said it was too early to determine whether Mr Morrison intended to recalibrate the government’s stance towards Beijing, which hardened under Malcolm Turnbull.
But he blasted the Prime Minister’s handling of the visit, which was kept secret from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, despite being “in train for some time”.
“It’s a great pity that this was kept apparently so hush-hush, and that nobody thought it would be entirely wrong to have these warships entering Sydney Harbour on the eve of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. What a blunder,” Professor Dibb said.
He said that Mr Morrison was right “not saying provocative and foolish things” about China, but he should not turn a blind eye to its oppressive conduct.
“They are a great power,” Professor Dibb said.
“They have a right to be in certain parts of the world as they grow more powerful.
“On the other hand, it’s a nasty authoritarian power with a dreadful human rights record.”
The taskforce is comprised of the frigate Xuchang, the auxiliary supply replenishment ship Luoma Hu and the landing platform dock Kunlun Shan, with about 730 officers and sailors in total.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said the taskforce was “probably the biggest to visit” Australia and argued that the public should “expect almost every year that there will be some sort of Chinese naval visit”.
The ships, which docked at Garden Island, are due to leave Sydney today.
Mr Morrison conceded the arrival of the warships had caught people off guard, but declared “it certainly wasn’t a surprise to the government”.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who resigned from Malcolm Turnbull’s ministry and backed Peter Dutton ahead of last year’s leadership spill, has previously accused China of building “useless buildings” and “roads to nowhere” in the South Pacific.
Her old portfolio of international development and the Pacific was handed by Mr Morrison to another of her factional enemies, Alex Hawke, in his new ministerial line-up.
Australia is under pressure from the US to take a hard line on Beijing’s aggressive expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region, but Mr Morrison has been wary of offending China, particularly after a backlash in Chinese media over his description of China as a “customer” before last month’s election.
By Ben Packham