On May 24th, following the election win of the Australian Labor Party and the subsequent win of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory note to his Australian counterpart in an apparent move to end a year-long freeze in diplomatic contact and an improvement of diplomatic relations since 2020.
This signals to the international community that China and Australia are taking different approaches to solving their diplomatic problems. The only question is, is it going to work?
A Brief History
China had cut off both diplomatic and trade relationships with Australia in 2021 due to their political issues that quickly burned through what remained of their diplomatic ties. However, as early as 2016, Australia emerged as one of China’s opponents to its territorial conquests in the South China Sea, firmly upholding the Philippines’ arbitration case win regarding the historical claims of China on the disputed islands, specifically the 9-dash line it tried to enforce.
A year later, Australia would pass the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme amid a series of political scandals involving the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party was allegedly trying to influence Australian politics, which would lead 72% of the Australian public to state that the Australian government is allowing too much investment from China based on a Lowy Institute poll.
More alleged reports appeared regarding Chinese infiltration within the Australian government during the Morrison administration. This would later be known as the 2019 Australian Parliament infiltration plot where a Chinese businessman Bo “Nick” Zhao was paid by suspected Chinese spy and Melbourne businessman Brian Chen to run for Australian Parliament. He later died in a hotel room after apparently overdosing on medication under financial pressures.
In 2019, Australian and Chinese diplomatic relations would soon reach a new low when Australia, along with 22 nations, condemned the Chinese leadership for mistreating and killing the Uyghur population, with some survivors being sent to re-education camps. In 2020, the Australian government also put its foot down to oppose the Hong Kong national security law amid fervent anti-government riots in the country for alleged attempts of silencing free speech.
Australia then called for an open investigation regarding the causes of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. This caused an uproar which resulted in China implementing a de-facto sanction on Australian beef, barley, coal, and lobsters. At that time, China also imposed an 80.5% tariff on Australian barley imported to China. On the other hand, Australia banned Huawei and ZTE from building Australia’s 5G.
In November 2020, it was disclosed that Australia published 14 grievances by China, which would then be handed to various news agencies in Australia.
— Eryk Bagshaw (@ErykBagshaw) November 18, 2020
This list includes ceasing funding to ‘anti-China’ research conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; ceasing “raids” on Chinese journalists and academic visa cancellations; halting support of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Uyghur-related issues, and halting calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 among other issues.
A series of economic sanctions were put in place by both countries in a tit-for-tat economic war through 2022.
New Australian Government, New Tone?
Now that Albanese is in power, the change of government has undoubtedly brought forth a sense of optimism that these tensions can be eased with the Albanese wanting to pursue a more diplomatic approach to China.
With former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison out of the picture (after being accused of the Labor party of being “soft” on China following his scandals and security issues with the Solomon Islands’ increasingly close relationship with China), and Former Defense Minister Peter Dutton’s harsh perspective on China, is there hope that diplomatic relations would improve?
It is unlikely that there will be considerable changes in Australia-Chinese relations as Australia has a genuine commitment to QUAD and AUKUS. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is a security alliance between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, with many of its members concerned with the security of the Indo-Pacific as China’s seen increasing its military presence in the region. However, the group is not just exclusive to concerns within the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS, on the other hand, is a security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, where various areas of cooperation currently exist concerning nuclear submarines, advanced cybertechnologies, artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, and quantum technology, to name a few.
China continually brands both groups to be an “Asian NATO,” with China describing it to be a method where the US can advance its “self-interests” and “US hegemony,” according to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian. They also call AUKUS an “Anglo-Saxon clique” and a child of “the Cold War mentality,” to which the US allegedly adds fuel to the flame.
In a military sense of improved relationships, it is unlikely China would approve of the Australian cooperation with the UK and the US in terms of developing nuclear submarines and hypersonic weapons. So it’s simply not fathomable that Australia would pull out of these groups to improve Chinese relations. Moreover, there’s no big pertintent reason for Australia to pull out of these groups when China is expanding its military influence by militarizing disputed islands in the South China Sea and developing security relationships with the Solomon Islands.
However, the Albanese government can likely improve by using a new tone and diplomacy. This administration’s new rhetoric highlights how Albanese responded to Li and the Chinese’s gesture of congratulating him on his election win.
“The Chinese side is ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future… to promote the sound and steady growth of their comprehensive strategic partnership,” Li Kequiang said.
Albanese later would say that the Chinese Premier’s letter was “welcome” and that he would “respond appropriately” after meeting with QUAD leaders in Tokyo. However, he also said that the relationship would remain “difficult,” asserting that “It is China that has changed, not Australia,” and that Australia should stand up for its values.
Hope also remains in the fact that new Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles had Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe exchanged an elbow bump during the Shangri-La Singapore security summit after almost two years of banned direct communication and $20 billion in trade strikes. It is interesting to note that China and Australia’s defense ministers would be sitting opposite each other in a room full of 500 people, with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sitting next to Marles.
Was it a coincidence? Perhaps? But maybe it was an indirect way of getting the two countries to talk to each other over a glass of Australian white wine for a shade of irony. After years of being unable to speak to one another under three different Australian Prime Ministers, apparently, all it took was being next to each other over dinner.
Marles and Wei met in a closed-door meeting afterward, where they discoursed different political, security, economic, and diplomatic issues that plague their countries. While this was a significant advancement between the two governments regarding diplomatic relations, neither side wanted to open a ministerial dialogue formally, more so a top-level meeting between government leaders.
“Australia values a productive relationship with China. China’s not going anywhere, and we all need to live together and hopefully prosper together. China remains Australia’s largest trading partner. China’s economic success is connected to that of our own and the region,” Marles stated.
No Official Moves Just Yet
Many of you would ask why they wouldn’t want to open a new dialogue publicly. First, the two administrations would lose face and credibility in their home countries. Public perception in their respective homes is critical, especially with China indirectly supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But behind closed doors, at a security meeting that would less likely make big headlines (unless a big announcement were to happen at one of these meetings), they could talk it out without losing face.
Many of us would not think that these two countries would speak to each other following China’s alleged attack on an Australian air force P-8 surveillance plane in May and the whole Chinese issue with AUKUS and QUAD. Still, at least on an informal ministerial level, talks have resumed between the two countries.
More so, Albanese is currently trying to prove Morrison wrong in his definitive approach. So, what comes next?
Albanese did state that they would still stand up for Australian interests and their values, with a few slight changes: Diplomacy and not mixing international foreign relations and domestic politics, particularly weaponizing it. However, there are political scientists and international studies academics who disagree, noting that it could be pretty challenging to isolate the two.
That being said, broader diplomatic talks need to be at play here for the two countries to discuss their international differences. With the back-and-forth over the past years, we could expect these two countries to be highly untrusting of each other.
In fact, it has unofficially started. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Australia’s first Asian-born member of the Australian cabinet, who also happens to be part Chinese descent as she had a Malaysian-Chinese father, could stir up the diplomatic conversation through the Solomon Islands.
Wong recently visited the Solomon Islands and was warmly welcomed by Solomon Island Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who had been increasingly leaning to Chinese influence due to a Chinese security pact. However, Sogavare assured Wong that there would not be a Chinese military base or a significant military presence in the Solomon Islands.
Thank you Prime Minister Sogavare for our constructive meeting today.
Australia deeply values our partnership with Solomon Islands.
I look forward to strengthening our cooperation as we work together to face shared challenges & achieve shared goals, including on climate change. pic.twitter.com/Ro8G1Ne4sJ
— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) June 17, 2022
Both foreign and defense ministers can issue a statement to clarify the current stances on the political and economic issues surrounding their relationship. It would be more feasible for Australia to do this portion as they have a new government, so clarifying stances on critical issues can be used to mend Chinese relations if they want to do so.
It is unlikely that Australia and China would sacrifice their military pursuits for the sake of mending their relationship, but finding common ground on other international issues that directly affect them is likely key to solving their diplomatic problems—possibly reviving formerly active venues for economic dialogues such as the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, or perhaps concessions on economic barriers they themselves had levied on each other.
Furthermore, cooperation may be possible in the non-military and non-competitive development of artificial technologies, fin-tech, and other technologies that do not risk Australia’s cyber security. Perhaps, a discussion on climate change policies is also possible. Even more so, a cultural approach to including Chinese-Australian relations at the university level may also be undertaken.
“We will be steady and consistent, looking for avenues of cooperation where they exist, while recognizing China’s growing power and the manner in which that is reshaping our region,” Marles stated during the Shangri-la Dialogue.
Another approach, albeit a more difficult one, is increasing dialogue with China regarding its military modernization. Australia has said that modernizing the military is only suitable for every country but should be done with respect to agreed rules and norms, which essentially means that China must make these moves transparently. That being said, Australia must also show China that it is transparent with its military activities.
“Australia does not question the right of any country to modernize their military capabilities consistent with their interests and resources, but large-scale military build-ups must be transparent,” he said.
“Insecurity is what drives an arms race, so reassuring statecraft is essential. It’s essential to providing confidence that global rules apply everywhere, that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea applies in all international waters, including the South China Sea,” he added.
There is no single method to solve this diplomatic issue between China and Australia. Still, it is clear that it requires a multifaceted approach to get the ball rolling – that is, if both countries want to solve their political issues together.