The message was so gentle in June it barely seemed like criticism at all. Anxious to keep the peace, the Prime Minister’s office assured everyone that Morrison was not picking sides. This was not about choosing China or the United States.
Yet Morrison clearly sympathised with the American side of the trade dispute.
Earlier, last November, Morrison used a speech to the Asia Society to make foreign policy all about values – including freedom of speech, thought and religion.
When he spoke of “standing by our mates” in the world, Morrison named democracies in Europe and North America as well as Singapore, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
And China? The entire speech was a reminder that this relationship was transactional. The other friendships ran deeper.
Morrison began dropping hints about toughening his approach to some of China’s trading tactics. After speaking to business people who had invested in China and had their ideas stolen, he made sure every speech mentioned intellectual property.
And events shaped the Australian message. Morrison believes Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped back from a deal he reached with US President Donald Trump at the G20 in Argentina last November. Morrison believes China should return to that deal.
So this week’s blow-up over China did not come out of nowhere. Yes, Morrison raised his voice a notch. But he did so because his soft murmurs did not seem to be heard.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese spoke at home as if Morrison had run amok overseas. Albanese talked of the need to be “measured” in dealing with China. Yet Morrison was measured.
Morrison made a mistake in the way the week played out. He should have attended the climate summit at the United Nations on Monday, even if this meant delivering his remarks about China in a different place and time. There was no breakthrough in the climate talks, but Morrison appeared not to care enough about the problem. He joined Trump in staying away.
So in the choreography of the week, Morrison chose the United States at each point while he highlighted his differences with China.
Is China a developed country? Morrison and Albanese are now at odds over this central question. It is not central to every trade deal but it is a marker between different camps on whether to take a harder or softer line on any concessions China seeks. In this sense, it is fundamental.
The tired dynamic of the China debate emerged again. Those loyal to Beijing sounded indignant that an Australian leader would question official Chinese policy about being a developing nation.
When East China University Australia studies director Chen Hong was asked who should take responsibility for mending fences between the two countries, he said China always promoted friendship.
“I think the responsibility is totally on the Australian side,” he said.
Of course. Totally.
If the success or failure of every Australian policy is measured by the shrillness of a Chinese official, every policy will end in failure.
The Australian approach to China has been a tale of stops and starts over a decade, made more fitful by the turnover in prime ministers.
Morrison has set out a careful argument for expecting more from China as a military superpower and the world’s second largest economy.
It has been two decades since China joined the World Trade Organisation, yet it acts as a developing nation with restrictions on trade and foreign investment that assume special treatment compared to other major economies. Is that sustainable?
Morrison believes that Australian interest is in telling China the old way cannot continue.
This is a risk. Chinese observers already talk of a “freeze” in relations; now there is the prospect of a further chill. Morrison has logic on his side but will not want to be the Prime Minister who brought Australia’s long boom with China to a halt.
Morrison says he rejects the binary argument that Australia has to choose between the one great power and the other, yet this denies what all can see. Of course there is a choice to be made. We saw it this week. Morrison has made a central decision in his leadership and there is no doubt which power takes priority.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.