Australia-China Diplomatic Relations at Half a Century: Some Reflections

Australia-China Diplomatic Relations at Half a Century: Some Reflections

This post is based on an article published in the Asian Studies Review. The article can be read here and is current available open-access to all readers.

Since December 1972, when the ALP government of Gough Whitlam established diplomatic relations with China, each country has benefited from the other in myriad ways, including geostrategic, economic, educational and cultural. Institutionally, the relationship is much stronger than it was in 1972, but the benefits are under threat from the current negative geostrategic relationship, and both sides should look for opportunities to reset.

Though there were periods of great tension, such as after the crackdown on student demonstrations on 4 June 1989, political relations were good for decades after 1972. Meanwhile, trade, the number of Chinese tourists and students in Australia, and educational and cultural exchanges were among items that really mushroomed. In 2001, Australia was among the countries supporting China’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and this helped China’s economy to grow even more rapidly. Human rights issues were mainly managed through dialogue, not grandstanding.

The Coalition’s John Howard (prime minister from 1996 to 2007), was extremely enthusiastic about trade with China, including an enormous contract for the sale of liquefied natural gas. Under the government of Kevin Rudd (2007–2010), China became Australia’s largest export market and trading partner. Australia sold natural resources, especially iron ore, to China, and got manufactured goods in return. In essence, Australia helped China’s modernization process while China helped Australia’s economy through such periods as the financial crisis of 2007 and after. It is good to remember these benefits even amid legitimate complaints concerning sudden breaks in trade in items like wine and barley.

However, many, both in the United States and Australia, suggested that China was gaining much more than the West. In particular, some in the Australian trade unions were critical of the fact that China’s lack of independent trade unions resulted in some employers’ transferring jobs to China, where the wages were lower and labour rights poor, so that they could maximize profits more easily. In his speech of 9 April 2008 to Peking University, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: “China’s growth can also cause anxiety. Some people are concerned about their jobs moving to China”.

Because of Australia’s security dependence on the United States, that country looms large in relations with China. The extent of Australian dependence was least under Whitlam but has fluctuated over time. It has increased in the twenty-first century and in recent years reached frightening proportions. Australia may be in the Asian region, but American policy towards China is of supreme importance.

In 2017 the Department of Defense of President Donald Trump (2017–2021) declared China a “strategic competitor”, rather than a partner, and the following year his Administration imposed tariffs and other trade barriers on China, accusing it of unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft. Meanwhile, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice-President Mike Pence made speeches implying China was evil and an outright enemy.

In his first press conference focused on China, Democrat President Joe Biden made it clear that the main aspect of his China policy was to prevent China catching up to the United States economically or in other ways. In October 2022 he imposed new restrictions on the export of American chip technology to China. The overall aim is to hinder and damage the economic and technological advancement of a country the United States now clearly regards as an enemy, not a partner or friend.

As for Australia and China, bilateral strategic and trade relations reached their acme in 2014 and 2015, when the highly conservative Tony Abbott was prime minister. In November 2014, China’s President Xi Jinping visited Australia and addressed the joint houses of the Federal Parliament. In the speech he said China and Australia had formed a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, a phrase Abbott specifically endorsed. In 2015, the two sides reached the ChAFTA (China Australia Free Trade Agreement). Yet within half a decade, Australian governments appeared to be regarding China as a security threat and relations had tanked. How could this be?

Some blame China, alleging that it tried to undermine Australian democracy through such ways as Confucius Institutes and Chinese Communist Party control of local Chinese people and others. While recognizing an increase in Chinese influence in Australia, I regard it as a bridge too far to suggest it places democracy in danger. Historically, it’s much more the West that imposes its values on others than China.

I blame excessive fawning on the United States, especially by Scott Morrison as prime minister (2018–2022). To me Morrison used no diplomacy towards China, and never hesitated to insult it. Because this was usually unnecessary, I consider he should share some blame.

One can cite several examples, but one seems to me to stand out, namely the AUKUS Agreement of 15 September 2021. This envisaged the sale of nuclear-powered submarines by the United States to Australia, replacing an earlier French deal. Although initiated under the Morrison government, this agreement has been promoted even more strongly by its ALP successor, in particular Minister of Defence Richard Marles. Australia is going all out to develop its military capability with American support and against China. It also introduces the potential for nuclear proliferation in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, public opinion has changed greatly. Lowy Institute Polls show the proportion of Australians believing the ANZUS Treaty was important to Australia’s security grew from 63 per cent in 2007 to 87 per cent in 2022. As for China, the same polls found the proportion of Australians believing it will pose a military threat within twenty years rose from 39 per cent in 2015 to 75 per cent in 2022.

Sinophobia has a long tradition in Australia, and it is easy to revive it. China has not helped by its more assertive diplomacy and “wolf-warrior” journalism. Though it has not sent troops into other countries since a short but intense border war against Vietnam early in 1979, its world presence has increased enormously as its economy has expanded. The “rise of China” is one of the most important features of our age.

It seems to me entirely reasonable that an enormous country with a long history and deep culture, which experienced humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful West for nearly two centuries, should wish to assert its influence in the world. Yet, it is not surprising that countries used to being on top and followers like Australia should be nervous and even alarmed at China’s rise.

I want to illustrate the point through considering one issue that has been present and important for all the fifty years since 1972 (and before): namely Taiwan.

The international community overwhelmingly accepts that Taiwan is part of China. Taiwan has never been part of the United Nations as an independent country, but only representing China. Until 1971, the U.N. China seat was represented by the Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan, but since then by the People’s Republic of China. Australia has never negated China’s position that Taiwan is a part of China, and that the government of the PRC is the only legitimate government of China.

Chinese statements signal that the China dream of an advanced economy to be established by 2049, the centenary of the PRC’s establishment, will apply to a reunified country that includes Taiwan. On the other hand, the August 2022 visit by Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and thus second-in-line to the presidency Nancy Pelosi, as well as the way she spoke in formal discussions as though Taiwan were a “nation” separate from the mainland, suggests very strongly that the United States is moving towards recognizing an independent Taiwan or at least that it places a much higher priority on maintaining Taiwan as democratic than on Chinese unity. This crosses China’s red line on Taiwan. China’s policy is peaceful reunification. It is so far refusing to be provoked by the United States, and I expect that to continue. Still, it is difficult to exclude the possibility of war over the next decade or so should China move to the use of force and the United States intervene militarily to prevent Beijing from taking Taiwan.

It is not necessary to defend any Chinese attack on Taiwan to note that attacking one’s own country is different from invading another. As for Australia, China has always regarded Australia as an independent country. Even if it reunites Taiwan by force, it is exceedingly unlikely to extend such action, let alone to Australia. China does not threaten Australia’s security.

Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong are better diplomats than their predecessors. At least Wong is talking to her Chinese counterpart in a civilized way. Though progress towards reset is slow, there is more hope than under Morrison.

A good relationship with China is desirable because experience shows it ensures beneficial economic development on both sides. Good cultural relations have enriched both countries and contributed to their diversity. Looking back over fifty years since Australia and China established diplomatic relations, what strikes me most strongly is the need for good diplomacy and a friendly and productive relationship.

This post is based on an article published in the Asian Studies Review. The article can be read here and is current available open-access to all readers.

Photo source: Lara Jameson from Pexels

Emeritus Professor Colin Mackerras (Officer in the Order of Australia, Fellow of the Academy of the Humanities of Australia) is a specialist on Chinese history, musical theatre and ethnic minorities, as well as Australia-China relations and Western images of China.

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