Resetting Australia-China relations under the Albanese government

By Louise Edwards and Colin Heseltine, Emeritus Professor of Chinese History, School of Humanities and Languages – UNSW; and Former Australian Diplomat

At the start of the election campaign, Asialink asked a dozen China experts for their views on how to manage the Australia-China relationship to advance the national interest. Louise Edwards and Colin Heseltine summarise their findings.

Over the past several weeks in the run-up to the federal election, Asialink asked some of Australia’s leading experts to assess the relationship with China and offer policy recommendations for the incoming government.

It is fitting that the first major official engagement for Prime Minister Albanese was a meeting in Tokyo yesterday of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries – an organisation formed with China in mind. There is no more important foreign policy issue for Australia.

A new government always presents new opportunities. At a press conference just prior to his departure from Australia, the Prime Minister gave a hint of a new approach on China by declaring he would not use national security issues to score political points. That is a good start.

But thinking about China policy must encompass the breadth of the relationship. Our expert contributors identified problems and offered ideas for solutions across a wide range of Sino-Australian interactions, including diplomacy, commerce, the environment, and culture. Along the way, they provided some valuable insights into the history of the relationship and modern forms of engagement via social media.

One of the key messages is that Australians cannot afford to be complacent. Nor can we afford to remain in a state of indignant affront. Just as it did for centuries in the past, China will shape global cultural, economic, and strategic trends for decades to come. It will be impossible for us ignore or hide from the import of the change that will mean for our immediate region.

Extricating public discussion on China from the briar patch of inter-party and intra-party squabbling and vote harvesting sensationalism has never mattered more. Hard-won successes in engaging with China since diplomatic recognition 50 years ago this year have unravelled over the past decade.

Although the relationship will not return to its prior state any time soon, both sides should at least begin a process leading to a resumption of high-level dialogue and contacts befitting two countries with massive security and economic interests in the region. The letter of congratulations from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Anthony Albanese over Labor’s election win hints at the possibility that could start this year.

Still, a process to improve relations will not be easy. In the first place, both sides would have to agree that they want to begin such a process. Neither, however, will want to be seen to be giving away too much. Both sides will also need to accept that blaming the other for the downturn in relations will lead nowhere.

A starting point will be for each side to tone down its rhetoric about the other. This will not be easy in an environment of increasing tensions over contested regional areas such as Taiwan, the South China Sea and the South Pacific. Pressures in Australia to maintain a hardline approach to China will continue. Managing these pressures will be challenging for the new government should it seek some reset in relations.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong has signalled the incoming government is up for that challenge. She announced during the election that Labor will conduct a review of our engagement with China.

But how can Australia reset its relationship with China? How can we advance Australia’s national interests in the context of China’s historic return to a position of wealth, power, and influence?

Our China analysts have a few suggestions to add to the mix. They bring decades of experience to bear on their advice and come from a range of Australian universities. Their recommendations speak to the importance of making changes in foreign policy and in domestic policy to place us in a stronger position to manage the changes that China’s rise generates. China is so big that all branches of government need to consider its impact.

They propose policies that will buttress our democratic institutions and practices, expand our technological and knowledge capacities, and diversify our diplomatic and economic networks. The summary recommendations are to:

  • Reinforce transparency and accountability in government decision making so that decisions about China — and on security, trade, or investment in general — strengthen our democracy and expand our policy options – Jane Golley (ANU)
  • Rebuild DFAT’s capacity to lead new Australian-centred strategic thinking about the challenges that America’s increasing disarray and China’s increasing assertiveness produces – James Curran (Sydney University)
  • Learn from our neighbours in Asia about how they are engaging with China to benefit from their deep well-springs of experience – Elena Collinson (UTS)
  • Diversify our global exports in manufacturing and services to reduce the economic vulnerability resulting from our current dependence upon a narrow range of products – James Laurenceson (UTS)
  • Increase our research and policy cooperation with China on climate change to join the forefront of efforts to address the existential threats facing our planet – Nengye Liu (Macquarie University)
  • Introduce Federal Truth in Political Advertising Laws and increase foreign language capacities in the Australian Electoral Commission to counter disinformation spread during elections to restore public faith in Australian democratic institutions – Graeme Smith (ANU)
  • Deepen our knowledge of China in concert with raising awareness of the limitations Australia’s tradition of Sinophobia imposes on our relationship – David Walker (Deakin)
  • Build a new cultural diplomacy strategy that benefits from China’s growing digital ascendency in AI, fin-tech and entertainment while taking into account the cyber-security challenges presented by that ascendency – Michael Keane (QUT)
  • Buttress studies of Australian politics, culture, and society in Chinese universities to facilitate Australia-literacy in China and mitigate misunderstandings and miscalculations – Diane Hu (University of Melbourne)
  • Revive Australian universities’ research capacity on China and build mechanisms for ensuring longer term sustainably of this national knowledge asset while also extending opportunities for learning Chinese and about China through all sectors of society – David Goodman (University of Sydney).

This substantial agenda for policy development highlights the need for ensuring Wong’s promised policy review listens to a range of voices beyond just those in government.

A broader diplomatic challenge for Canberra will be to find common cause with a government in Beijing that we might not see eye to eye with on every issue. But, one thing is certain, we cannot build a more peaceful and more prosperous region unless China works on this project with us.

The election signalled voters’ desire for change, so now is the time to get our best policy brains talking about China with the interests of the Australian people at heart. And it’s time to get our most skilled diplomats back at the table talking with their Chinese counterparts with the interests of the Australian nation at the centre.

Louise Edwards is Emeritus Professor of Chinese History at UNSW’s School of Humanities and Languages. She is a senior adviser to Asialink.

Colin Heseltine was Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (2001-05), head of Australia's representative office in Taiwan (1992-97) and deputy head of mission in the Australian embassy in Beijing (1982-85 and 1988-92). He is a senior adviser to Asialink.

Banner image: Australian and Chinese flags. Credit: Shutterstock.

This article was contributed as part of an Asialink Insights series on the China policy challenge facing Australia, 'China: the road ahead'.