Charting the warm front in China-Australia relations
By Zhao Wei  ·  2024-04-01  ·   Source: NO.14 APRIL 6, 2023
An exhibitor introduces products to a visitor during the AliExpo 2024 (XINHUA)

After cohosting the Seventh China-Australia Foreign and Strategic Dialogue in Canberra on March 20 with Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Chinese Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, Australian Foreign Minister, hosted a press conference.

"A stable relationship between Australia and China doesn't just happen, it needs ongoing work, and this was the latest meeting in that process," she stated.

"From pandas to produce tariffs, all issues were on the table" is how the Australian Associated Press described the foreign ministers' meeting, which was a significant step toward resuming comprehensive dialogue and cooperation in diplomacy, economy, trade, technology, and education between the two countries.

Wang's pivotal and comprehensive meeting with Wong was his main engagement during what was his first visit to Australia in seven years. Engaging with top-tier and local government figures, members of the government and opposition parties and diverse societal groups, his visit significantly thawed the once-chilly bilateral ties.

Ups and downs 

This year is the 10th anniversary of President Xi Jinping's state visit to Australia and the establishment of the China-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership, a milestone in their bilateral ties, in 2014. The same year, both nations heralded a new era by concluding negotiations on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Moreover, despite international pressures, notably from the United States, Australia's subsequent decision to join the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015 underscored a broadening of Sino-Australian relations. 

However, the narrative took an unexpected turn in 2017, with Australian media spotlighting alleged Chinese influence within Australian political spheres, sparking considerable debate. The ripple effects began to strain the bilateral rapport.

The ensuing years were marked by a series of incidents that further strained ties. In 2018, Australia led the way in excluding Huawei from its 5G rollout, citing "security concerns." The discourse around the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, spearheaded by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison, introduced further tensions. This was compounded by Australia's stance at the United Nations, challenging Chinese maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea in July the same year, aligning closely with U.S. positions. In April 2021, the Morrison administration annulled the agreement linked to the Belt and Road Initiative previously signed between the Australian state of Victoria and China. As Morrison's term progressed, the country's policy toward China increasingly slid into paranoia and irrationality.

Looking back into history, it is clear that China-Australia relations are based on mutual respect and mutual trust. In 1971, Gough Whitlam of the Australian Labor Party visited China as opposition leader and pledged to establish diplomatic ties if elected, which he did later that year. Relations hit a low in 2022 due to aggressive policies toward China by the Morrison government. However, after an election win that year by the Labor Party, which criticized these confrontations and hoped for better relations with China, communication has gradually been restored, improving bilateral ties.

In November 2022, Xi met Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the G20 summit, the first formal bilateral meeting between the leaders of China and Australia since 2016. Later that year, Wang held talks with Wong, agreeing on maintaining high-level exchange between the two nations. Albanese became the first foreign leader to deliver a speech at the opening ceremony of China International Import Expo in Shanghai on November 4, 2023.

"Since the current Australian Labor Party government came to power, China-Australia relations have achieved the second important transformation, which is fully in line with the fundamental and long-term interests of Australia and its people as well as the development trend of the current times," Wang said when Albanese met with him on March 20.

The AliExpo 2024 in Sydney, Australia, on March 15. Over 100 exhibitors from China, Australia, New Zealand and other countries and regions joined in the two-day e-commerce event (XINHUA)

Moving forward 

When he met with Wong, Wang said the ups and downs of the past decade have not only left both sides with lessons to learn from, but also accumulated experience worth cherishing. "Both sides should have no hesitation, no yawing and no backward steps," he stressed.

Zhang Jie, Director of the Asia-Pacific security and diplomacy research department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out in an interview with Beijing Daily on March 19 that there is a complex dynamic in Australia's approach toward China, marked by inherent contradictions between economic ties and strategic orientations. While both nations share substantial mutual interests in economic and trade sectors, Australia's policy fluctuations, significantly swayed by its alliance with the United States, underscore a notable instability.

On March 21, Wang met with former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating at the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney. Keating, who is a member of the Labor Party and led the country from 1991 to 1996, described the meeting to media as "a big picture discussion about the geostrategic balances and influences in the world."

Wang remarked to Keating that Australia is an ally of the United States, a partner of China, and more importantly, a sovereign nation. Analysts view Wang's words as a piece of sincere advice to Australia. The pivotal factor for Australia is its ability to navigate the delicate equilibrium between these relationships while upholding its status as an independent nation.

"Central to this challenge is the capacity to ward off external influences and craft policies that resonate with its own national interests. This is one point Wang notably stressed," said Guan Yao, a Shenzhen TV commentator, in an interview on March 22.

From Australia's standpoint, aligning with the United States to contain China has not yielded the anticipated benefits. Instead, this approach has advantaged the U.S., while Australia has witnessed a considerable erosion of its market share in China, a void filled by American interests.

AUKUS is another example. Unveiled in September 2021, the pact presents itself as a military alliance among the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Yet, its essence extends beyond mere cooperation, veering into the realm of nuclear proliferation under the guise of security, since one of its provisions is that the United States would provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to help build a powerful navy. The U.S. strengthens defense cooperation and increases its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region as a way to flex its muscles toward China. But clearly, these exclusive cliques do not make regional situations safer. Instead they further provoke bloc confrontations and arms races.

Rather than Australia becoming a pawn in the geopolitical confrontation and fabricating security anxieties, it would be better to benefit its own people and the entire region through genuine cooperation.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that in the period from January to November 2023, trade in goods between Australia and China totaled $183.55 billion, an 8.52-percent increase from the year prior. Australia's exports to China represented 35.96 percent of its total goods exports. In addition, Australian products such as coal, timber, barley and hay have returned to the Chinese market. The commercial lease of Darwin Port by Chinese company once again passed Australian assessment last October. Both countries have reached a principled consensus on properly resolving trade disputes such as that over Australian wine exports to China.

"China's huge economic volume and vast space for development do not pose a threat to other countries and are conducive to regional peace and stability," Keating said in the meeting, expressing his full confidence in the prospects for Australia-China relations.

(Print Edition Title: Navigating the Tide) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

Comments to 

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Hoy   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency
China Daily   |   CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860