Can China-Australia ties override strains?

By Han Feng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/2 20:26:32

On Thursday last week, Australia's parliament passed a suite of new laws, targeting interference by foreign governments and espionage, making it "the first developed country to pass sweeping laws against foreign interference," according to reports. Unstable domestic politics seems to be one of the reasons behind the move.

Australia's ruling party - the Coalition, an alliance of Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia - has planned for long to introduce reforms against foreign interference and espionage. Since the last election, the Coalition does not have the overwhelming majority of seats in parliament, putting its future in jeopardy. Therefore, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government, which initiated the laws, needed it to consolidate the Coalition's status.

At the same time, Sino-Australian ties have been roiled with some Australians treating China's rise as a threat to their country and quite a few politicians and media have stoked tensions in the island nation. Accusations that the Chinese government is making use of some Chinese students and student unions in Australia for political interference and that ethnic Chinese with Australian citizenship and permanent resident permits are intervening in the country's politics through political donations have created a lot of brouhaha in the country.

The Australian government says the new laws are not aimed at China. Yet the hype over "China threat" or "China's interference" has been frequent in the nation. Some politicians even had to resign because of the accusations related to so-called political donations from China. But all political donations in the country are registered and transparent at least until now.

Canberra wants to improve relations with Beijing now and does not want to be seen linking its new laws with China. So it is trying to explain that they are not directed at any country. But the laws were passed when tensions between the two countries were escalating, which led people to link them with recent volatility in Sino-Australian relations.

Previously, Sino-Australian relations were treated as a model for ties between Beijing and the West. There have been some favorable factors in China's ties with Australia. For instance, the two sides once applauded their regular high-level exchange. In 2013, Beijing and Canberra agreed to establish a prime ministerial-level dialogue. But it seems that the dialogue mechanism is facing some hurdles now, with this year's dialogue, supposed to be held during the first half of the year, not heard of until now.

People used to emphasize that there has been no historical or political barrier between the two. But since last year, tensions started to rise. China and Australia have a lot to offer each other economically and Beijing has been Canberra's largest trading partner since 2009. However, their political spat may affect economic cooperation.

For the moment, both sides are aware that it is time to mend ties. For instance, on May 21, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at request met with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Buenos Aires. Also in May, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo visited China to reinforce ties with his country's largest trading partner. Improving bilateral relations will be beneficial for both sides.

In addition, cooperation between China and Australia is also needed for regional affairs. The US, which is becoming increasingly irresponsible by withdrawing from a number of multilateral agreements as well as from its responsibilities to provide enough assurance to its allies, is stirring up troubles globally. Washington can mess up the situation in the Asia-Pacific region and turn around and leave when it feels like it. But neither China nor Australia can do the same. This requires countries in the region to abandon political prejudice and collaborate for the sake of the region.

Controversies are not the only thing between China and Australia. The two still share the same will and positive prospects to cooperate. Meanwhile, there are also new topics up for discussion on the agenda. What is needed now is a starting point, a consensus, which can be accepted by both sides for the two to make a breakthrough in ties.

Canberra needs to have a correct understanding of the bilateral relationship, bearing in mind the long-term interests of both sides and take effective steps to prove it is sincere toward improving ties with Beijing.

The author is a research fellow with the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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