Australia-China diplomatic relationship hits lowest point

(L-R) Australia’s Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper hold a press conference following the 30th AUSMIN on July 28, 2020, in Washington, DC. Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP Source: AFP

China watchers have said Beijing’s bellicose barbs aren’t “pleasant reading” and demonstrate a “palpable sense of anger and resentment”.

There’s no doubt China-Australia relations are far from great right now. But is China’s increasingly furious tirades something to be concerned about or just colourful froth and bubble?

In the last week, China’s embassy in Canberra, the foreign ministry in Beijing and the state-owned Global Times have taken potshots at Australia. The Global Times, which has direct links to the Communist Party leadership, has singled out Australia three times for a drubbing.

The latest flashpoint was the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations, better known as AUSMIN, which took place in Washington DC last week.

Foreign minister Marise Payne and defence minister Linda Reynolds met their counterparts including US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. China was high on the agenda.

The Australian reported that the US and Australia had agreed to create a “top-secret defense co-operation framework to counter Chinese military aggression”.

Mr Pompeo praised Australia, “for standing up for democratic values and the rule of law, despite intense continued, coercive pressure from the Chinese Communist Party”.

Australia was more restrained. It resisted the US calls to join so-called “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea which Beijing claims much of, a claim disputed by just about everyone.

Ms Payne said Australia would make its “own decisions” when it came to China.

A statement from the Chinese embassy in Canberra on Wednesday said assertions at AUSMIN were in “disregard of the basic facts, violated international law … and grossly interfered with China’s internal affairs”.

“Any attempt to pressure China will never succeed,” the statement added. “We urge Australia not to go further down the road of harming China-Australia relations”.

WHAT’S POKED THE DRAGON?

Trade unites Australia and China but much divides the two Asia Pacific nations.

Australia’s calling out of the treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang province; the trammelling of any pretence of democracy in Hong Kong; the banning of tech giant Huawei from 5G infrastructure, the upping of defence spending and the backing of an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic have infuriated China. Even popular app TikTok is in the midst of a diplomatic spat.

In retaliation, China has put tariffs on Australian barley and refused meat from some abattoirs.

Last week, Alan Dupont from think tank the Lowy Institute said it meant Canberra was now fully in Beijing’s crosshairs.

“Although other countries have suffered comparable falls from grace, Australia seems to have been singled out for special retribution.

“There is a palpable sense of anger and resentment in the increasingly shrill denunciations of Australia by Chinese officials and the state-run media,” he wrote in a piece published in The Australian.

“Perhaps this is because hopes were once high that Australia and China could put past enmities behind them.”

CHINA NEEDS US TOO

However, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney Professor James Laurenceson, said what China said and what China did was often quite different.

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He told news.com.au that Beijing’s responses to the AUSMIN meeting was “pretty formulaic”.

“They are not pleasant reading from an Australian perspective but I didn’t detect a serious upping of the ante.

“At the official level the situation is plainly strained. But equally, for the most part, both Canberra and Beijing have had the good sense to let Australian and Chinese households and businesses get on with the engagement both sides see as being in their interests.”

He added that the Global Times’ stock-in-trade was overt nationalism. That might chime with some in the Chinese leadership but it was by no means the consensus.

“Beijing isn’t as trigger happy as it is sometimes portrayed. If China really wanted to use trade to punish Australia, it could have done so by now, and to a far greater extent than putting a tariff on barley and decertifying four meat processing facilities.”It’s been a long time since China-Australia relations were so cordial, Xi Jinping could address the Australian parliament. Source: News Corp Australia

That’s not to say it won’t, said Prof Laurenceson, but it would be better to focus on Beijing’s policies rather than hyperbolic editorials.

There was also a danger that Australia could slip into a narrative of it being beholden to China’s whims, said the Lowy Institute’s Mr Dupont.

“China buys our iron ore, thermal coal and agricultural produce because they are high-quality and competitively priced, not because it is doing us a favour.”

It wasn’t desirable, or even feasible, to stop buying Australian minerals.

He added that if China’s aim had been to create a bloc to counterbalance the US, it had failed.

“Xi has already lost the Anglosphere. And Europeans have grown wary of China’s inducements and are increasingly irritated by the hectoring tone and threats of his wolf-warrior diplomats.”

Prof Laurenceson said Beijing was more “pragmatic” than it might seem.

“There’s plenty of reasons for them to more restrained, not least of all because China benefits from trade with Australia too.

“The complementaries between the two countries are deep. While this doesn’t mean economic engagement is impervious to political tensions, it is far more resilient than many commentators imagine.”

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