15/04/2016 3:15 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Why Turnbull Isn't Talking About Human Rights On His China Visit

NICOLAS ASFOURI via Getty Images
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) reviews a military honour guard with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 14, 2016. Turnbull is on a state visit to China. / AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull touched down in Shanghai on Thursday morning for the annual Australia Week in China conference, an event aimed at enhancing bilateral economic ties between the two countries. This China visit has today continued in Beijing, where Malcolm Turnbull will soon meet his counterpart, President Xi Jinping, as well as other Chinese leaders.

While economic interest is undoubtedly a primary issue for this visit, Turnbull has also recently criticised China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, calling it "counterproductive". This is a bold move, and one that asserts Australia's commitment to a peaceful resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea, and to the enhancement of the role of international law in the region.

However, the Prime Minister has not yet mentioned anything about China's human rights record, and it seems unlikely that he will do so at all. That the Prime Minister is brave enough to criticise China's movements in the South China Sea demonstrates that Australia will not kowtow to China in return for business concessions. But what is keeping him silent on the human rights issue? And why is the South China Sea issue seen as more important to address?

First and foremost, the South China Sea issue is more pressing for Australia strategically. It is estimated that 60 percent of Australia's seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea region -- so the heated situation in the region could have an unfavourable impact on the Australian economy.

Secondly, Australia's involvement in balancing power in the South China Sea region is already widely known. A recent example has been the country's participation in Balikatan, a military drill near the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Balikatan, which means "shoulder-to-shoulder," is a joint military exercise between the US and the Philippines.

It has been a linchpin for the two nations' military cooperation since the US shut down its bases in the country in 1992. Australia's involvement is a strong signal that an international presence in the South China Sea is necessary for balancing China's growing assertiveness in the region, and will not likely lead to a conflict between the two countries.

Australia's criticism of China's movements in the region can also be seen to be supporting the wider international community's push for stability in the South China Sea. Denouncing China's behaviour in the South China Sea has become a 'new normal' for world leaders. In fact, just this week a meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Hiroshima issued a joint statement emphasising the "importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes" in the East and South China seas.

Australia also looks to the US, a major ally, for direction in dealing with China. While the US has been vocal in it's criticism of China's movements in the South China Sea, the country's criticism of China's human rights record has been relatively low profile to date. The last major criticism was in April 2015 when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted that the detention of five feminist activists was "inexcusable". So, if the US doesn't seem to bother much, why should Australia?

It is also important to note that the nature of China's human rights issue and the South China Sea issue are different. The human rights issue lies in the heart of China's political system. It is related to the country's ideology and the state-society relationship. This means that, in the eyes of the West, China will always have an issue with its human rights -- this has been the case since the founding of the People's Republic of China, almost seven decades ago.

On the other hand, the South China Sea issue is not inherent to the country -- any other country could be having the same territorial, trade and diplomatic disputes. However, China's assertive behaviour in the South China Sea does not reflect a commitment to peaceful resolution. So, although the South China Sea disputes can be traced back to the aftermath of World War II, it is China's recent assertive moves that are destabilising the region and prompting criticism from the rest the world.

Therefore, Prime Minister Turnbull's decision to criticise China on the South China Sea issue, but avoid touching on the human rights issue, can be seen to be in the best interests of Australia. It means he can advocate for peace and stability in the region, without sacrificing the advancement of bilateral economic ties.


Klaus Raditio is a PhD candidate in the University of Sydney's Department of Government and International Relations. His research is on China's behaviour in the South China Sea. The current phase of his research focuses on the rationale of China's rejection of a UN arbitration on the disputed South China Sea.

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