Rethinking Australia’s troubled relationship with China

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

Today, Asialink starts a series of articles from some of Australia’s leading experts on China to assess how the next government in Canberra after the 21 May federal election might recast China policy.

This series will highlight the complexity of managing relations with China by examining its multiple dimensions. Our hope is to better inform readers about the array of difficult choices and options facing Australia as it navigates a geopolitical challenge unlike any in its history.

As the federal election approaches, there is no more vital issue for Australian voters to consider than how the incoming government will handle relations with China, our largest trading partner and the country that more than any other will shape our region’s strategic and economic outlook in coming decades.

Yet, at this time, Australia’s political relations with China are at their lowest point since diplomatic relations were established fifty years ago. Our leaders do not talk to each other; China has imposed punitive sanctions on certain Australian exports; and Chinese officials frequently excoriate the Australian government over the latter’s stance on issues like defending Taiwan, the AUKUS agreement, and the origins of COVID-19.

Official China now sees Australia as little more than a branch office of the United States. Although it has long accepted that Australia’s alliance with the United States is, and will remain, an integral part of our national security arrangements, the recent emergence of the Quad and AUKUS as key elements of these arrangements, and the rhetoric surrounding them, has intensified China’s assessment that Australia is seeking to confront and contain its rise in international power and influence.

Payne, Morrison and Blinken
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during 2022 Quad meeting, Melbourne, Australia - February 10, 2022. Image credit: US Department of State.

This negative environment has been exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions in both countries, which have diminished opportunities for bilateral activity (assuming either side was of a mind to improve relations), and by China’s declared “without limits” cooperation with Russia on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine.

A common narrative in Australia is that China changed after 2012 when Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Xi Jinping assumed office. But this overlooks decades of CPC rule under a single Leninist party in which all the current trends in China’s governance were present. Xi Jinping may have presented a much more assertive Chinese approach to the world as the country’s economic and military power grew, but the fact remains that Australia — and the rest of the world — was always going to have to deal with a more powerful China that would not simply acquiesce in the international order established post-1945.

Some simplistically argue that the problem is Xi Jinping, and that if he were to be replaced, China would revert to a more benign regional and international role. No such assumption should be made given the importance of collective decision-making and long-term planning that typifies the CPC’s policy deliberations.

The key policy setting for Australia is to recognise that a powerful, assertive, and activist China, will have a major influence on issues affecting peace, security and economic development in our region, and that it is with us to stay. We must adjust to this reality and factor it into all our current and future policies. As a significant country in the Indo Pacific region, Australia needs to be able to discuss all manner of issues with China at the highest political level.

While Australia can, and should, take steps to diversify trading markets and reduce economic dependence on China, we need to be realistic about the extent of China’s role in the global economy and be aware of the arenas where engagement with China will be inevitable and desirable for our continued prosperity. China’s growing status as a major technology power means that Australia’s development of an innovative, high-tech digital economy will only be retarded by the current frozen state of the political relationship.

Regardless of the outcome of the federal election, therefore, the next government faces a critical choice. Should it frame the relationship in security terms, on the basis that China constitutes an ongoing threat to Australia’s sovereignty and values that ought to be confronted? Or would Australia’s interests be better served by seeking a reset in the relationship that would enable us, at the very least, to re-establish high level contact with China and to restore some bilateral normality? And, if so, how might this be achieved? Is it time for some fresh thinking on the management of Australia’s relations with China?

The unfolding election campaign will no doubt see both major parties present themselves as best able to meet the great challenges implicit in those questions. Yet the zero-sum dynamic of electoral politics simultaneously risks simplifying and distorting the real nature of the choices we face as a country.

Our premise is that whoever wins on 21 May faces growing challenges in managing relations with China, requiring Australia to be flexible and nimble in how it responds. For that reason, we invited experts on Australia-China relations to contribute articles over the next month on diplomacy and national security policies; managing the risks of regional conflict; economic cooperation, trade and investment; climate change and the environment; human rights and the rule of law; and the role of media. We also asked scholars to assess the state of Australian expertise on China and the historical evolution of the relationship to provide a better understanding of the capabilities and context that Australia draws on in setting policy.

We gave contributors one overriding mission: to offer views on how policy can be shaped with the imperative of serving Australia’s national interests. In what is at times a fractious debate, surely this is a principle both sides of politics embrace.

Our own view is that one condition of advancing the national interest is an understanding of the competing and intersecting national interests of Australia’s Indo-Pacific neighbours. Multilateral collaboration within our region will enhance Australia’s own capacity to engage effectively with China, precisely because China is also refining its myriad global relationships. Rebuilding the confidence of Australians in our capacity to achieve our national goals alongside a rapidly rising China, in a region that is also deeply engaged with China, is vital.

It is our hope that this series of articles can at least provide us with a better grasp of the challenges and opportunities of dealing with a more powerful China and contribute to Australian policymaking being more competitive – and by that we mean help reduce partisanship and lay the basis for the kind of long-term thinking and policy development that China and many of our neighbours already practice.

Ultimately, we would like to see the collection of expert analysis we publish in the coming weeks contribute to a better quality of public debate at a time when the discussion of China risks being trampled in domestic political rivalries that oversimplify a complex, multi-faceted relationship.

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.

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

Banner image: Chinese-Australians waving flags. Source: Michael Lieu, Flickr.

This article was contributed as part of an Asialink Insights series on the China policy challenge facing Australia.  

Read 'What Are the Risks of Economic Exposure to China?' by Professor James Laurenceson, Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at UTS.