“I understand, and I’m sure China and the world understands, the United States’ position in relation to Taiwan. It’s a fairly long held position and it’s not surprising that it should be restated by the new President.
“From our point of view, we urge calm and restraint on everybody. We don’t want to see any aggression by China against Taiwan. We don’t want to see any … attention escalate between the United States and China, so from our point of view we would like calm and restraint on all sides.”
– John Howard, AM, ABC Radio
April 26, 2001
“We think that the Taiwan question is the internal affairs of China … No foreign country should make inappropriate remarks on this question. At the moment Sino-American relations are at a very sensitive and complicated period of time. And we think that Prime Minister John Howard’s remarks are very inappropriate, which confuses right and wrong. So the Chinese Embassy are not happy about this. China and Australia are friendly countries. And we hope that the Australian government will do more things that would be beneficial to the development of the friendly relations between China and Australia.”
– Spokeswoman for China’s embassy in Canberra, AM, ABC Radio April 26, 2001
One of the tactics of the campaign-style journalism waged by elements of ABC news and current affairs involves placing political opponents, that is primarily conservative Coalition MPs, whenever possible in a state of denial or on the defensive.
This obvious and tendentious practice achieved a new and absurd low on April 30, when ABC news bulletins in Melbourne led with the announcement that Prime Minister John Howard had “defended his right to speak publicly about international issues”. Only in the mind of an Australian journalist would the right of the nation’s leader to speak on international issues be open to question; and only at the ABC, one suspects, would such a contemptible and ridiculous proposition be given time in a news item.
The report arose from an adversarial interview by Tracy Grimshaw on the April 30 edition of Channel 9’s Today show. The interview started with Grimshaw focussing on two issues: Prime Minister Howard’s endorsement of US President Bush’s commitment to defend Taiwan, and the Chinese challenge to Australian naval vessels in the Taiwan Strait. “How shaky is our relationship with China at the moment?” Grimshaw asked. “I don’t believe it’s shaky at all,” the PM replied. “I don’t think we should overreact or exaggerate the significance of what has occurred in the last couple of weeks,” he said.
In response, Tracy Grimshaw argued the Chinese position: “You say we don’t want to overreact, surely it’s more about their sensitivity. Clearly they are aggrieved, both about your comments supporting President Bush, and about the incident in the Taiwan Strait. Do you not concede that?” The journalist also introduced the idea that John Howard should not have been supportive of the US President at all. “Do you think perhaps you might have benefited from being more neutral last week in your comments supporting President Bush?” Tracy Grimshaw asked.
Mr Howard attempted to explain: “There are sensitivities between China and the United States. We can’t ignore that. But equally you have a situation in international affairs where you’re not struck dumb or rendered mute every time something involving another couple of countries occurs … It’s not a view to have no view.” This only served to encourage Grimshaw to escalate the hyperbole. “Are we on a bit of a diplomatic tightrope though now with China?” she questioned. “How difficult is it to maintain a friendly, diplomatic relationship with China as well as supporting our friendship with the US?”
The PM pointed out that Australia’s relationship with the US went beyond friendship. “We have a defence alliance with the United States and the United States is our closest defence ally. That’s been a constant with Australian defence and foreign policy for more than 50 years.” It is interesting that, in the mind of a journalist like Grimshaw, the pre-eminence of the Australia-US relationship over one with a communist dictatorship is no longer seen to be a given. Of course, it is not surprising. Australian foreign policy has been morally compromised for decades by the “one China” condition attaching to the recognition of the communist state; and, more recently, by the way we watched with detachment as Hong Kong was marched into gaol.
Paul Weyrich, president of the Washington-based Free Congress Foundation, recently recalled how in 1972, as a member of a congressional delegation visiting Taiwan, he had shocked his hosts when he asked why Taiwan did not consider independence. “This notion that you are just a renegade province of the mainland is fiction. You know it and I know it. As an independent nation you can begin to arrange for your own defence and plan for your own future quite apart from what mainland China has in mind,” Weyrich wrote. He noted that as a result of his remarks he spent the rest of the trip “in the corner”.
That was then. Weyrich observed: “Today one of the main political parties in Taiwan is openly in favour of independence and its position has been gaining in recent times. Perhaps the current problems between the mainland and the US will embolden the pro-Taiwan independence movement even further. And now the Bush Administration seems to be offering support for that position.”
When John Howard said that “we don’t want to see any aggression by China against Taiwan,” he was expressing a view that many would share. He also said he would like to see “calm and restraint on all sides”. That should have served also as a cue for the more excitable elements of the Australian media.