Bridging the Sino-Australian Divide


posted | in Essay

The Sino-Australian relationship is one of the most important and contentious of all of Australia’s bilateral relationships. But this relationship is not without difficulty. Such difficulties in the relationship can be found by reflecting upon the differences that the political systems of China and Australia respectively illustrate: both are motivated and defined by divergent political principles and conclusions on the nature of humanity. The problematic diplomatic and security environment in the region, increasingly defined by competition between China and the United States, exacerbates this contention, further complicating the relationship.


Despite these challenges the former Labor government skilfully navigated the complications to achieve its signature foreign policy accomplishment: the establishment of an unprecedented strategic dialogue between the leaders of China and Australia. Although she described herself as a novice in the realm of foreign affairs, the efforts of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard elevated Sino-Australian relations to their highest and most positive level in decades. This impressive foreign policy achievement bequeathed a valuable legacy to subsequent Australian governments to expand and build upon. In particular, the Sino-Australian Strategic Partnership was an important inheritance for the new Abbott government, giving it one of the most significant foreign policy advantages for any new Australian government since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, the foreign policy work of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments left a tangible legacy and road map for the Abbott government to achieve its particular foreign policy goals.

Given its declared agenda of pursuing an Asia-centred foreign policy, looking to “Jakarta, not Geneva”, observers would have naturally concluded that the Abbott government would take full advantage of the elevated relationship with China. Yet today, no more than six months after its election, the actions of the Abbott government have not only disrupted their own agenda but also squandered the achievement of the previous government. Despite calling for the completion of negotiations for a free trade agreement between China and Australia, the Abbott government quickly established the impression that it held China in a less than important position. Upon meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit meeting in Brunei, Prime Minister Tony Abbott referred to Japan as Australia’s “closest friend in Asia”. Apart from the fact that it is hardly a sound idea to manage foreign policy in such childish terms, Japan and China are locked in a bitter territorial dispute over several unpopulated islands and such language unnecessarily compromised Australia’s neutrality in that matter.

By criticising China in such a public manner the Abbott government has effectively sacrificed Australia’s position of neutrality

Australia’s policy of maintaining neutrality in territorial disputes not directly concerning its interests was further undermined when Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop publicly rebuked China over its unilateral declaration of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) around the islands in question. As former Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr recently wrote in the Australian Financial Review if Bishop desired to register Australia’s displeasure with the Chinese government other, less public avenues were available. The stakes of the dispute had by that stage become heightened, as the United States had declared that it would defend Japan in the event of armed conflict. China of course responded and Bishop was unusually publicly rebuked by their foreign minister Wang Yi on her next visit to China. A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing warned that Australia risked damaging bilateral ties. This may be a real threat, or just bluster but the point is that the valuable resources of Australian foreign policy, including any good will built up with China, are being squandered over an issue of very little consequence for us.

Relations between China and Japan are frustratingly complex, yet Australia has enjoyed good relations with both nations and could have used such a position to contribute, in some way, to the resolution of the dispute. By criticising China in such a public manner the Abbott government has effectively sacrificed Australia’s position of neutrality in the dispute and thus any opportunities to contribute to its peaceful resolution.

The Prime Minister fared little better in his public remarks on the issue of the ADIZ. Commenting in support of the actions of his Foreign Minister, Abbott commented that Australia was a “strong ally of Japan”. From “best friend” to “strong ally”, the relationship had been elevated and transformed. Yet in the realm of international affairs, the term ally conveys a particular meaning about a formal relationship between nations which involves mutual assistance and has been codified. Australia can be called an ally of the United States or New Zealand because of the ANZUS Treaty. However, Australia has no such agreement or arrangement with Japan. In short, the Prime Minister was wrong to claim that Australia was an ally of Japan. Whether he misspoke or not is incidental, as he added with his next comment “China trades with us because it is in China’s interest to trade with us”. The Prime Minister clearly conveyed the message that his government viewed China in a more negative light.

It is questionable if the Abbott government at its highest levels has given any great thought to the possibilities of the relationship with China. In particular, the rise of China as a global power does not appear to have had a significant impact on the thinking of the Prime Minister. In his 2009 personal manifesto Battlelines, the Prime Minister wrote “although China is likely to become even stronger in the years ahead, this may not mean much change for Australia’s international relationships or foreign policy”. If such a statement is purported to represent deep and serious analysis then it leaves a lot to be desired.

The rise of China has constituted the most significant and consequential geopolitical shift since the end of the cold war. The effect of this on Australia has been and continues to be profound. Successive Australian governments have addressed, even profited, from the rise of China. For the Prime Minister to effectively gloss over this important development is an intriguing illumination of how he conceives of the world and the order of global politics.

Of course, some voices welcome this visible change in attitude toward China. Here the contentious elements of the relationship become paramount. Some voices, reflecting on politics, human rights, or poorly thought out historical analogies will never accept that Australia needs a close relationship with China. The complaints of some critics, particularly relating to human rights, have some merit. But they need to remember that China is changing; it is not the same country it was even five years ago. We can make a stand on principle and distance ourselves. But once we do that, we lose our ability to engage and exercise some positive influence on China. It is also clear that China is not an expansionist power, so particular historical analogies have no relevance here.

To build and spread our influence must be a core agenda of the Australian government.

Despite these developments, China still remains one of our most important relationships. Disputes and disagreements cannot diminish its ongoing importance. To restore the relationship to its previous position the government will need to understand and manage the complexity in a much more sophisticated way than they have thus far demonstrated. Despite what others may argue China does hold Australia in some regard beyond that of a trading partner as demonstrated by its agreement to engage in strategic dialogue. Australia already has robust relations with the United States and Japan. We should build such a relationship with China. We ought to seize every opportunity to deepen relations with this important nation, to express our complaints and concerns in constructive terms, free from grandstanding. To build and spread our influence must be a core agenda of the Australian government.