Can China-Australia relations fully rebound?

By Han Feng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/11/8 19:33:41

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his visiting Australian counterpart Marise Payne on Thursday in Beijing as Payne started her three-day visit to China on Wednesday. This signals that China-Australia relations are beginning to improve, which is also the two countries' common will.

China-Australia relations were once seen as a good model of China's relationship with a developed country. But after the 45th anniversary of China and Australia establishing diplomatic relations in 2017, there were no official exchanges at ministerial level or higher, a rarity for China-Australia relations where high-level exchanges used to be frequent.

In addition, Australia canceled a parliamentary vote to ratify an extradition treaty with China. It has been dragging its feet on Beijing's Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and accused China of interfering in its domestic affairs while also passing laws against foreign interference in June. Canberra also blamed Beijing for issues in the South China Sea and the South Pacific.

As China-Australia relations deteriorated, Australia's internal politics also encountered troubled times. In August, Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull who was ousted as prime minister. Morrison was facing a divided Liberal Party, the opposition and societal discontent.

Many analysts believed that Australia's domestic politics contributed to its unstable relations with China. In fact, in a changing international situation, China's rise and US unilateralism have posed challenges to the West-dominated international order that Australian interests thrive on, diversifying political pursuits in Australia and leading to a divided Liberal Party. But Canberra's policies toward China were criticized by the opposition, local governments, academia and business circles at home. This indicates that Australia's policy choice isn't in line with the international situation and also hurts the country's interests.

It is imperative that the Australian government adjusts its China policies. In September, Wang met by request with Payne on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. In his remarks, Wang expressed that on the basis of mutual respect, China was willing to rebuild mutual trust with Australia and expand common interests on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. Wang also hoped that China-Australia relations can move forward along the right track.

In fact, during the later period of the Turnbull government, it sent a clear signal of an intention to improve relations with China. On August 7, Turnbull delivered a speech at the University of New South Wales as then prime minister, saying that Australia welcomes the success made by China's reform and opening-up efforts. He praised the contributions made by the Chinese and the Australians of Chinese descent and looked forward to working with China on the Belt and Road initiative and strengthening the Australia-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

After Morrison assumed power, signs of the Australian government hoping to improve relations kept emerging. During Morrison's speech at a Chinese-Australian community event on October 4, he said that "the government I lead is strongly committed to working closely with China's leaders to advance our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership" and affirmed that Australia will always welcome Chinese students, investors and visitors. On Monday, Australia's Trade Minister Simon Birmingham attended the China International Import Expo and applauded Victoria for becoming the nation's first state to sign up to the BRI.

Since they established diplomatic relations in 1972, China and Australia have built mature bilateral ties. In 2017, Australia's trade with China was valued at A$183 billion ($133 billion) - up 16 percent on 2016 - accounting for 24 percent of Australia's total trade. China's and Australia's economies are highly complementary, which promotes their cooperation and development. But if people measure their bilateral relations in terms of Western hegemony and ideology, the unnecessary disputes will hinder the relationship and also harm the feelings of people in the two countries.

Beijing and Canberra need to further adjust and promote their bilateral relations, especially when Australia is facing an election and China may need time to coordinate with the new government. The two countries should exchange ideas in structural and multilateral cooperation for the long run, and further explore regional construction as China pushes for a new round of opening-up.

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


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