Illustration: Eric Lobbecke.
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke.

My criticism of the Chinese naval visit on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is not levelled at the crews of the warships; they were doing their duty. I hope they had a pleasant visit to Sydney — and, above all, were able to experience and learn how wonderful Australia is, and the importance of our democracy, including freedom of expression and association in a culturally diverse and tolerant society.

The decision to approve the visit to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was not only insensitive but demonstrates that Beijing can dictate terms and we just acquiesce. Scott Morrison’s cabinet of groupthinkers and those responsible for the decision have sought refuge in appeasement. They were totally outman­oeuvred by Beijing.

China’s communist regime might argue that it was right for the People’s Liberation Army to intervene with a deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, but the international community certainly did not. Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe further inflamed the memory when, on the same day the three ships arrived, he was quoted in the media saying the Tiananmen crackdown was “the correct policy” and “due to this, China has enjoyed stability”. The tone on Taiwan and the South China Sea in his speech in Singapore was arrogant and uncompromising.

I come to defence matters with a personal history. I valued the work I did for the Department of Defence as a government lawyer. This, coupled with my husband’s 35 years of service in the Royal Australian Navy, fostered a keen interest in defence.

The PLA naval task group made up of a frigate, an auxiliary replenishment ship and an amphibious vessel displayed an impressive blue water capability, which leaves no doubt that it was power projection. That was Beijing’s intention, as was the timing of the visit, all for maximum effect. Beijing’s bellicose and illegal actions in the South China Sea, coupled with the Defence Minister’s Singapore statements, have effectively signalled that Australia has lost the psychological contest with Beijing.

Former defence and security official Peter Jennings summed it up correctly: “(China) can do what they want wherever they want and they will never be punished for their behaviour because of the veneer of maintaining the relationship.”

Our foreign policy white paper professes to be a projection of our values. The South China Sea is a crucial route for world trade, including our iron ore, coal and gas. It is vitally important we continue to join the US and others in freedom of navigation operations by naval fleets and military flights.

We need to exercise the right of innocent passage in accordance with international law but, above all, we need to stand up for values of freedom and adherence to a rules-based order. We should not be afraid to call out China where it has failed to demonstrate the credentials of a good international citizen. Beijing’s leaders simply ignore the fact that, following the unanimous ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they have no right under international law to claim areas falling within the “nine-dash line” of demarcation in the South China Sea.

It is important we stand by fundamental values; commercial interests should not be the only driver. This is what Australians expect. Australia is home to more than one million people of Chinese heritage. Having had almost 40 years’ involvement in multicultural affairs, I know well that many value the liberty and freedom of expression they enjoy in Australia, especially those who still have strong family ties in China. China is not a democracy; it is a communist regime. Its values and beliefs are fundamentally different to ours. Many Chinese-Australians continue to take a courageous stand against the regime. I am sure the timing of the PLA naval visit would not sit well with many of them.

It is misleading for the Prime Minister to dismiss the timing of this power projection exercise as a “reciprocal visit” and to say the task group was merely “returning from counter-drug trafficking operations in the Middle East”. Not only were Australians kept in the dark about the visit, it has been reported that even NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was not informed.

For my part, history will judge me as having tackled difficult issues in an honest and forthright manner, as minister and backbencher. The record will show I received very little support, much criticism and pushback from pro-Beijing fellow travellers in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

However, it is gratifying to read the recent comments by Don­ald Trump’s former political adviser, Steve Bannon, confirming it was Australia in 2017 that alerted the US to Beijing’s behaviour in the Pacific. One hopes the recent visit to our country by US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Patrick Murphy will help stiffen the spine of the Morrison government in dealing with Beijing’s influence in the Pacific and the South China Sea.

The supine nature of the decision to approve the visit reinforces the concluding words in Clive Hamilton’s book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, “Our naivety and our complacency are Beijing’s strongest assets.”

Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was minister for international development and the Pacific from 2016 to last year.