After backlash, Australia needs to rethink its China policy

By Wen Qing
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, May 26, 2021
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Justin McCarthy (right), commercial manager of First Creek Factory, checks wines with his colleague in Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia, on October 23, 2020. First Creek participated in the Third China International Import Expo in Shanghai last November to reach more Chinese consumers. [Photo/Xinhua]

When talking about taking a hawkish stance against China, Australia's Scott Morrison administration seems to have taken things slightly further than its U.S. ally. Recently, a succession of high-ranking Australian officials, including Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo and Defense Minister Peter Dutton, "warned" that as tensions with China intensified, the "drums of war" were "beating" and conflict should not be omitted from the list of potential actions. Meanwhile, Australia also continues to develop hypersonic cruise missiles together with the U.S., investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its military bases, in a bid to "counter" China.

Such rhetoric and activity have led people to feel that this big South Pacific country is under "imminent threat" from China and must expand its armaments and prepare for war to defend itself.

However, reality holds that being geographically far removed from one another, the two countries are highly complementary trading partners. China is the largest export destination of Australia. Even in 2020, when the world struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia's trade surplus with China came in around $61.4 billion, according to data from China's Ministry of Commerce.

Then why does the Morrison administration keep stirring up trouble with its largest buyer? Is a confrontation with China really the right choice that will serve Australia's national interests?

Behind Morrison's grudge

"Since former U.S. President Donald Trump came to power in 2016, the U.S. started to position China as a strategic competitor and launched various movements to contain China's development. The major shift in the U.S. approaches toward China prompted Australia to reassess its own China policy and take action to align with the American strategy," Ning Tuanhui, an assistant research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies, said.

From then onward, several Australian politicians and media outlets have been hyping up China's "threat" and "infiltration." In 2018, Australia banned China's hi-tech giant Huawei from building its 5G network on the counsel of U.S. security agencies. Only last year, the Morrison administration even politicized the coronavirus pandemic to promote a so-called "independent international inquiry," joining the U.S. in its China-targeted smear campaign.

Marching to the beat of American drums has long been the national strategy of Australia. In October 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush told Australian Prime Minister John Howard that he considered Australia America's "deputy sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific. This description perfectly pointed out how these two countries looked at each other, though the "sheriff" role was later denied by Howard due to criticism from regional countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Almost two decades passed, and under Morrison, Australia seems on track toward becoming an even keener deputy sheriff.

Although Morrison actually voiced that any assumptions that Australia is just pleasing the U.S. are "false" during a speech at a virtual policy exchange think tank event last November, actions sometimes speak louder than words. It is clear that Australia has long marched in lockstep with the U.S. in the framework of containing China.

Trade fallouts

Trade between China and Australia cannot remain immune from such deteriorated relations. For example, China imported 713 million tons of Australian iron ore in 2020, accounting for 61 percent its overall iron ore import. The share decreased 7.51 percentage points compared with the 2019 level, showing an initial result of China's efforts to diversify import channels to reduce reliance on Australia, Beijing-based Global Times reported, citing data from Beijing Lange Steel Information Research Center. Meanwhile, trade of wine, timber, cotton and other commodities also suffered a severe impact.

"It is hoped that the Australian side will do more things conducive to the creation of mutual trust and cooperation as is in line with the two sides' comprehensive strategic partnership, so as to provide the conditions that will bring bilateral relations back on track," Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded when asked about trade matters at a press conference on November 27, 2020.

For Australia's allegiance, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that the U.S. would not abandon Australia on the field in the face of "economic coercion from China." Ironically, the U.S. exports to China of wine, cotton, log timber and wood rose dramatically over the past year.

Former Australian Ambassador to China Geoff Raby said Blinken's comments amounted to the "usual empty reassurances made to allies to keep their resolve" and proof of Washington's support will come when the "U.S. refuses to backfill into the Chinese market where Australian trade has been blocked."

"When it comes to trade, Australia and the U.S. do not always share the same interests," Chengxin Pan, an associate professor of international relations at Deakin University, said.

The U.S. has been steadily "backfilling" the void left by its ally, including Australia, a report by Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post said on March 19.

Right way forward

"Although trade and economic relations between China and Australia are close, some people in Australia have grown anxious about China's rapid growth as they have long viewed the international order dominated by the U.S. to be the pillar of regional stability and peace," Ning said, adding that these same people would be worried that China's development would challenge the U.S. dominance.

But just like Raby said, "Gone is the Pax Britannica, gone is the Pax Americana; Australia is now on its own."

As its closest neighbor, New Zealand seemed to present Australia with a befitting model. "If [Australia] were to follow us and show respect, a little more diplomacy from time to time and being cautious with wording, they too could hopefully be in a similar situation [with China]," New Zealand's Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said.

"We hope the Australian side can heed the constructive voices from people who have vision, who face up to and reflect upon the crux of the difficulties that China-Australia bilateral relations are in, who develop relations with China based on mutual respect and equality, and who do more to enhance mutual trust and promote practical cooperation," he said.

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