Left and right united against the Canberra government’s attempt to push through what it thought was a routine deal, Chris Pritchard reports

China and Australia both want a mutual extradition treaty. It hardly seemed front-page news, and if things had gone according to plan, an agreement between the two nations would have barely caused a ripple. But the proposed deal fell apart, in the process exposing deep political divisions among Australians.

A decade ago, the former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard – a leading figure in the Liberal Party, as is the incumbent, Malcolm Turnbull – strongly supported an extradition treaty with China. But in the cut and thrust of politics final negotiations never took place, and the issue faded away. This year Beijing proposed that the question of a treaty should be revived, and Canberra agreed, before things rapidly began to unravel.

Relations between China, the world’s leading manufacturer and trader, and Australia, a major source of Chinese raw materials, including iron ore and coal, and agricultural output such as wheat, meat and dairy products, are for the most part cordial. There are irritants, such as Beijing’s claim to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, parts of which several Asian nations assert, with the backing of historical documents, are within their territory. But such differences remain peripheral.

Initially the Australian government reasoned that the opposition Labour Party would support the treaty. Since the Liberal-led administration lacks a majority in the Senate, the parliamentary upper house, it needed Labour’s backing, but the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, suddenly said his party would oppose the bill, taking the government by surprise.

If Australia didn’t want to send an individual back to China, it could ‘just say no’

Worse, minority parties such as the left-wing Greens announced they too would not support the treaty, guaranteeing its failure in the Senate. Some independents and even a few government senators came out against the bill.

It was a blow for Turnbull, already facing opinion polls showing a slide in support for his government and for him personally as Prime Minister. His party, which is in coalition with the rural-oriented National Party, considers itself centrist, but the proposed treaty bared differences among Liberals, with its right wing shown to wield considerable parliamentary power.

Beijing’s reaction was restrained. Cheng Jingye, the Chinese ambassador to Australia, merely described himself as ‘disappointed’. Echoing the official line, Zhuang Deshui, head of an anti-corruption centre at Peking University, said his country could use ‘other methods’ to bring fugitives home, including applying pressure through their families, a technique that has already been successfully employed.

Some on the left argued that opposition from the far right had more to do with hostility to China than to the text of the treaty itself. Where Australian political enemies from left and right found common ground, however, was the view that Australia, a parliamentary democracy, should not send people back to China, a country where the judicial system is rife with glaring human rights abuses.

Independent Senator Cory Bernardi, regarded as the nation’s most prominent mouthpiece for extreme right-wing views, explained his opposition to an extradition treaty thus: ‘China has a 99 per cent conviction rate – about 1.3 million people are found guilty, and around 1,000 are found not guilty. That doesn’t strike me as an open and transparent legal system.’

The Nationals’ leader and deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, denounced opposition to the bill, calling it ‘crazy’. The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said the proposed treaty gave plenty of scope for ‘broad discretion’. If Australia didn’t want to send an individual back to China, it could ‘just say no’. This did nothing to mollify the treaty’s opponents, however: in the face of imminent failure, the Turnbull government withdrew the bill from the Senate.

Chinese nationals mostly end up in Australian jails for alleged drug crimes

Chinese nationals mostly end up in Australian jails for alleged drug crimes, while about 80 Australians, mostly of Chinese ethnicity, are in Chinese prisons. Generally they have been sentenced or are on remand for alleged financial-sector crimes. Among these are 17 executives (three of them Australian citizens) of the Crown empire of the casino, hotel and property mogul, James Packer. They are being held in harsh conditions in Shanghai while awaiting trial. The precise charges they will face have yet to be revealed but they were involved in arranging gambling packages for Chinese high-rollers – known as ‘whales’ – to visit Melbourne’s Crown casino. Chinese law stipulates that casino-related packages must involve 10 or fewer travellers.

According to Dr Malcolm Patterson, an internationally respected authority on Chinese affairs who teaches international law at Sydney’s Macquarie University, ‘Ideological differences between states do not necessarily inhibit co-operation in the achievement of mutually agreed ends. To realists in particular,’ he writes in a publication by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an Australian think tank, ‘it is axiomatic that national interests should dictate purposes to which diplomacy is directed. An extradition treaty with another state may be a suitable project.

RESTRAINED REACTION: Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, expressed disappointment at opposition to the treaty
RESTRAINED REACTION: Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, expressed disappointment at opposition to the treaty

‘And most observers would agree that criminals should not evade justice by passing unchallenged through inadequately protected borders. Nonetheless, the recent fiasco over ratification of the Australia-China extradition treaty demonstrated two weaknesses: an unsettling incoherence in Liberal Party and National Party ranks over the substance of Australian national interests and an inclination among some politicians to evade a genuine national interest in asserting human rights norms…’

Patterson adds that the Communist Party of China’s behaviour ‘is consistent with a dogma that identifies human rights norms as “foreign infiltration”’.

Most analysts in both countries argue that an extradition treaty will inevitably come into force at some point, but not for the time being. An inescapable conclusion is that the treaty issue is of slight importance to China, but in Australia, it has helped the government identify its enemies.

Chris Pritchard, based in Sydney, is a former BBC and Wall Street Journal correspondent who travels widely in Asia

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