Australia has historically suffered from a kind of formal contradiction, being a western country culturally, but geographically and geopolitically located to the east. The country’s Asian dimension, as well as awareness of this and of being a key player in the Asia-Pacific scenario, is something very recent, not fully metabolized by both politics and institutions. The model of this, in some necessary respects, the Asian projection has often been represented by the relationship between Australia and China which, despite its profound fluctuations, remains of fundamental importance to both countries today.
During the Scott Morrison government (2018; 2019-22), relations unequivocally frayed, for several reasons: the very strong alignment with the US ally, culminating in participation in the containment-born mechanisms towards China such as the Quartet; The Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the AUKUS Agreement signed with the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the ongoing criticism and accusations against the Chinese leadership over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and the demand for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19 by former Secretary of State Marise Payne, without Forget the strong support for the diplomatic boycott of the recent Beijing Winter Olympics. An ultra-hardline streak that characterized the Liberal Party’s four-year rule was threatening hard-won relations with China. A more confrontational approach than an adaptive approach, which does not fit to accompany the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of relations between Canberra and Beijing. A conflict that may have played a role in the outcome of the May 21 election, which saw outgoing Prime Minister Morrison defeated by the Labor candidate, Anthony Albanese. Albanese’s surprise victory may open a new chapter in bilateral relations and return them to a more stable path of diplomacy, cooperation, and shared global economic interests. A good starting point could be renewed support for the principles of multilateralism, given that the political and economic foundations of the Australia-China relationship are based on accession to an open multilateral system. Canberra’s political and economic priorities are unmistakable in the Asia-Pacific region, and the Albanian government seems to be well aware of this: it was her first official visit to Indonesia, which was followed by the recent trips of Benny Wong, the new minister. Foreign countries, in Malaysia and Vietnam. A trend that mainly follows the Australian trade balance: China is the country’s main trading partner, with the trade volume accounting for about 31% of the total, while if we extend the discussion to the Asia-Pacific region, we move to about 66%. Western partners score much lower numbers, with the G7 group accounting for 27%, while the group made up of key economic and strategic partners such as Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and the United States scored just 17%.
For these reasons, changing the pace of China-Australia bilateral relations will be more desirable and will bring great benefits to both sides. The change in government between Liberals and Labor presents an ideal opportunity to restore and restart the relationship with renewed ambitions. First, Beijing should review the sanctions, formal and informal, imposed on various Australian assets in response to the various allegations made by the Morrison government. Sanctions have already affected Australian exports, but ironically have introduced the heaviest bill, both politically and in terms of reputation, specifically to China, leading to heavy criticism on its side. Clearly, gestures of relaxation from the Australian side would also be desirable, and in that sense a general lowering of anti-China rhetoric and the meeting in Singapore between Richard Marles, Australia’s new defense minister, and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fengyi could represent an encouraging start. Continuing to engage China in the multilateral chessboard with other regional partners, both economically and politically, may be the best way to restore bilateral relations, as well as representing a kind of return to the origins in Australian strategy. There is certainly no shortage of opportunities, starting with the G20 and the work of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement involving ASEAN members, Australia, China, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand. Not to forget China’s stated interest in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement that arose from the ashes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after the US withdrawal decided by the Trump administration.
These platforms represent important opportunities for constructive engagement, particularly thanks to Beijing’s preferences toward contexts of this kind, in which more in-depth bilateral meetings can be planned. Thus, the pursuit of common interests and goals with China, and in a process that includes as many regional partners as possible, could become the path through which Australia will be able to renew the foundations of such an important link. Moreover, in this way Canberra can also achieve another important goal, which is to take the leadership that many of its neighbors and partners so loudly advocate, and to present itself as an outstanding interlocutor and facilitator towards China.
Photo: the flags of Australia and China. Credits: esfera / Shutterstock.com
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