Australia-China Diplomatic Thaw (2)
China Nanhai News Network (中国南海新闻网)
07 November 2019

The following is a translation of an article published by China Nanhai News Network (中国南海新闻网) which analyses the Australia-China diplomatic thaw from a PRC-based perspective.

Australia’s recent attitude towards China is subtle: What are the mysteries behind it?

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne visited China from the 7th to the 9th November at the invitation of State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Wang held a new round of the Australia-China Foreign and Strategic Dialogue with Payne during her visit.

When asked whether the Australian foreign minister’s visit to China means that the one or two years of “frozen” China-Australia relations are warming up, MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying pointed out at a regular press conference that we have repeatedly stated China’s principled stance on the development of relations between the two countries. We are willing to work together with Australia to expand exchanges and cooperation in various fields on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and make progress in promoting China-Australia relations.

Positive Signals

Just recently, during the period of the Turnbull government, there was a high level of mistrust between Australia and its largest trading partner China. Australian officials repeatedly accused China of “infiltrating” and “interfering in Australia’s internal affairs.” Australian advocates of friendly relations with China were attacked. There was no shortage of slander in public opinion. Threats and harassment of Chinese students occurred occasionally and China-Australia relations were seriously affected.

Although Turnbull signalled a wish to ease and improve relations with China at the end of his term, the chaotic relationship was still deadlocked when he was forced to step down in a “forced abdication.”

When Morrison, the new Prime Minister, took office, he sent a number of positive signals on China policy. For example, he visited a Chinese community in Sydney and greeting them with the words “Ni Hao” (hello in Chinese). He said the Australian government cherishes the contribution of Chinese-Australians and it welcomes Chinese students, investors and tourists. For example, he stated that Australia and China should manage differences constructively. Establishing a strong relationship is in the interest of and benefits both countries. As another example, in his first foreign policy speech, he stressed that Australia is willing to seek a “strong and positive agenda” with China, saying that relations with China are crucial, and trade, tourism and educational exchanges are at a historic high. Even when talking about US-China economic and trade frictions, he did not line up with Australia’s ally, the United States, as a matter of course. He stressed that Australia does not favour either side. This was also considered by the rest of the world to be an expression of the Morrison government’s intention to ease relations with China.

Speaking of economics and trade, Australia has in fact benefited a lot from the process of interacting with China. The data shows that since 2007, China has been Australia’s largest source of imports for 10 consecutive years and has been Australia’s largest destination for exports for eight consecutive years. Economist Saul Eslake pointed out that “in the course of China’s rapid economic growth and industrialisation over the past 30 years, no country has made more profit than Australia.”

Steven Ciobo, the Turnbull government’s Minister of Trade, Tourism and Investment, visited Shanghai on May 17th. In the past few days, the Minister of Trade, Tourism and Investment of the Morrison Government, Simon Birmingham, also came to Shanghai to participate in the first China International Import Expo. Birmingham praised the Expo, saying, “It is not only good for China, but also beneficial to the Asia-Pacific region and the whole world. Australia has been looking forward to this Expo.”

Birmingham is the second Australian federal minister to visit China in 2018. Australian media analysts believe that this is the latest sign of improvement in diplomatic relations between Beijing and Canberra. However, experts believe that the crux of China-Australia relations lies in politics, not in economics and trade. Whether relations can return to the right track and to normalcy depends on the performance of the third Australian Federal Minister who visited China today.

Domestic Reasons

Objectively speaking, Morrison has indeed sent a signal easing relations with China since he took office, but it does not mean there has been a major change in attitude. We are happy to see an improvement in relations, but at the same time we still need to remain rational and determined.

The Morrison government will promote a warming of relations with China, in line with Australia’s consistent policy direction this year and in line with its economic and diplomatic interests. Australia does not want to see tension with China, nor should it become too Americanised. In either case, there are factors causing Australia concern that its own interests could be affected.

Finding a balance between China and the US is actually Australia’s long-standing foreign policy. As US-China tensions on trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea intensify, Australia’s ability to maintain its high wire act will become more and more difficult, but this strategic pattern will not change immediately.

For the current Morrison government, internal politics is actually the main problem it faces and on which discussion is focused. He faces huge and difficult problems maintaining his leadership of the ruling coalition and winning the 2019 general election.

The final electoral result of the vacancy in the Wentworth constituency in Australia was declared on November 5th. The Liberal Party candidate Dave Sharma was defeated. This vacancy was triggered by Turnbull’s ouster from the prime ministership and his subsequent voluntary resignation from the House of Representatives. Sharma’s defeat has turned the Liberal and National parties ruling coalition into a minority government, meaning that the weak, one seat ruling advantage has been lost. This also means that if he encounters a no-confidence motion, it may lead to the general election being held before its scheduled date of May 2019.

From an intra-party perspective, Morrison and Turnbull have been entangled in constant squabbling, from the coup to mutual hostility and there are disorderly voices within the Liberal Party. The leadership has changed frequently and there has been non-stop in-fighting. And even in the Wentworth constituency, which traditionally had been a safe seat for Liberal Party, the voters have been wounded to the core. From an inter-party perspective, the latest polls show that the Australian opposition Labor Party is receiving 54% support, higher than the ruling coalition’s 46%. The position of the ruling coalition in the 2019 general election is uncertain.

The Morrison government is under serious pressure and needs to find a breakthrough to improve and stabilise its ruling status. Perhaps, at a time when raging internal problems are difficult to resolve, Morrison, who is in the early days of his administration, will be eager to catch his breath by improving relations with China. According to some analysis, this visit by the Australian Foreign Minister may have been in order to pave the way for the meeting between the Prime Minister and President Xi Jinping during the upcoming 2018 APEC meeting.

Future Prospects

Among the many factors affecting China-Australia relations, those in the South Pacific region can’t be avoided. Australia, which regards the South Pacific as its backyard, is still wary of China. In his speech on November 1, Morrison called it Australia’s “top priority for foreign policy,” and said that he hopes to establish a more effective relationship with the South Pacific region because they are a big family. Earlier, some other Australian officials discredited China’s aid to the South Pacific, but South Pacific countries quickly struck back saying, “it is up to the recipient governments and peoples to say whether China’s aid is good or bad.”

According to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report, during his visit to Papua New Guinea on October 31, Wang Yi said, “Doing more to actually benefit Pacific island nations is better than the charitable gestures made by others. In its assistance, China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, it never attaches any political conditions, it never targets any third party, and it does not seek to change the desires of any country.”

Earlier, Wang Yi also stressed that if the Australian side really wishes relations between the two countries to get back on the right track and achieve sustained and healthy development, it must get rid of traditional thinking, take off its coloured glasses, and look at China’s development from a positive perspective. This would provide forward momentum rather than a backlash.

Looking back, Australian Minister of Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham pointed out that although China and Australia have not always agreed on everything, the two countries overcame differences in order to be more closely linked over the past 40 years. Looking to the future, he said that with mutual trust and respect, China and Australia can continue to transcend their differences and seize opportunities for complementary growth to ensure that future generations can also look back on the next 40 years, and be proud of their achievements.


Translation by: Chris Lanzit, NAATI Certified Professional Translator (Chinese-English), NAATI Practitioner ID: CPN0BC84W

Date of Translation: 21 November 2018

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