Healing old wounds – the China-Australia relations

Tom Fowdy
One can never expect Australia to be China's best friend, but the two are interdependent, integrated and reap mutual benefits from stability and pragmatism in their relationship.
Tom Fowdy

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Beijing from November 4 to 7 on an official trip to China. The visit is the first by an Australian prime minister in years, and ultimately marks a sharp reversal on a downward trend of relations which was triggered by the preceding administration of Scott Morrison.

Albanese, who represents the Labor Party, has sought a more pragmatic approach with China which absconds from the inflammatory rhetoric of the Liberal government and ultimately pursued diplomacy. Although Canberra has at the same time continued to deepen its own military ties with the United States, largely out of its sovereign control, few can deny that he is making ties between the Australia and China workable again and securing a satisfactory coexistence.

Canberra faces the unique dilemma of being a critical and devout ally of the US, but also being heavily integrated into the economy of the Asia-Pacific region. Australia has sided with the US in every conflict since World War II, a distinction not even earned by Britain.

Australia of course heavily replies on China as its largest export destination. The surplus and benefactor of trade is overwhelmingly tipped in Canberra's favor because Australia is a country with a small population of 25 million located on a gigantic sprawling landmass, equated to China's population of 1.4 billion. This favorable population and land balance has allowed Australia to export surplus resources in the form of agricultural goods and minerals, including coal, gold, iron ore and other precious metals.

An increasingly close relationship with Beijing in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s thus allowed it to turbocharge its growth and become an immensely wealthy country which escaped the great recession of 2008. If it were not clear already, China has been indispensable to Australia.

Despite this, Scott Morrison from 2018 onward took the lead in pivoting Australia closer to Washington and spearheading the anti-China campaign. His government became the first to ban Huawei from participating in 5G, blocked several other Chinese investments, and also articulated a hostile media environment which involved platforming think tanks such as the ASPI and therefore shaping the broader anti-China agenda to the world.

This in turn led to an explosion of "yellow peril" hysteria, paranoia and racism against Chinese people in Australia. The hostility which the Morrison government shown to Beijing is never quantified in mainstream media reports when the reason why relations deteriorated is covered, only that he "called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19" which is quite obviously when looking at the context, misleading.

China subsequently responded by punishing Morrison's Australia by imposing bans on various Australian imports, a move coined as "economic coercion" by the mainstream media and think tank doublespeak, as if Canberra were blameless.

Roll forward, and while Albanese has not in fact reversed any Scott Morrison-era policy, including participation in the controversial AUKUS alliance, what he has done is calmed things down significantly and attempted to restore normality.

First of all, it is my distinctive observation that hostile voices such as the ASPI and the media complex which drove them have been sidelined. No longer is Australia a beacon or "leader" of the anti-China hysteria. Rather, Canberra has been engaging in hard diplomacy to show Beijing that it is still sensible about its relationship and to get its lost exports back.

Given Australia's geopolitical position and alignment, this is acceptable. China is willing to compromise and ultimately improve relations. One can never expect Australia to be China's best friend, but the two countries are interdependent, integrated and reap mutual benefits from attaining stability, sensibility and pragmatism in their relationship.

Morrison's mistake was to drive relations off a cliff solely at the behest of the US in a very damaging and publicly provocative way. Now Albanese still may be that US ally, still embracing AUKUS, but he's ensuring that doesn't go as far as rendering China as Australia's enemy.

Think of two sports teams who play together. They have different colors and they compete. However, both players still benefit from the spectators and the business of the game itself, with China bringing a huge crowd. Therefore, the two countries need to follow certain rules, respect and fairness as they manage their competition with each other. That's probably the best we can hope for in China-Australia relations right now.

(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)

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