Australia’s bid to mend ties may be insincere

By Yu Lei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/7 16:52:24

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The Australian government's recent attempt to improve its relations with China has been welcomed and supported by some Australian voters, especially those in business, agriculture, animal husbandry and mining. However, it is believed that Canberra's apparent change in attitude is a distinct tactical campaigning effort likely to serve electoral interests in the run-up to federal election in May 2019. Whether this attempt can be sustained and come out as a sincere bid to improve relations remains to be seen.

The change in attitude is obviously intended to win over Chinese and other voters. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Australia is home to more than 1.2 million people of Chinese ancestry," who comprise the largest ethnic group besides the white people in Australia. As their political, economic and cultural influence grows, they become a major force to be wooed by political parties. 

However, in the past two years, the ruling party has been catering to US and extreme right-wing forces, resulting in a rise in racist nationalistic sentiments in Australia. Some right-wing politicians, media and racist organizations took the opportunity to advocate the racist fallacy of white supremacy, deliberately launched campaigns against "espionage activity," which were allegedly conducted by Chinese, and made accusations that millions of Australian Chinese, overseas Chinese and Chinese students were "spies" sent by the Chinese government to Australia. The ruling party's unwise move to connive with right-wing forces' wanton demonization of China and overseas Chinese has poisoned the political environment, worsened the atmosphere for the sound development of China-Australia ties and upset overseas Chinese, thus hurting the election prospects of the ruling party.

The Australian public generally believes that the ruling party is likely to be driven out of office in the election. Therefore, the ruling party changed its leadership in August 2018 with an eye on the vote. It is also the reason why Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed at a Chinese-Australian Community Event in October 2018 to express his goodwill soon after taking office.

The Australia government's bid to mend fences with China is clearly driven by economic interests, aimed at economic recovery and boosting employment, and doing away with disenchantment in the business, farming and mining sectors due to the ruling party's previous policy toward China.

According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the bilateral trade between China and Australia reached an all-time high of A$183 billion (about $150 billion) in fiscal year 2018, of which the total export of goods and services from Australia to China amounted to more than A$110 billion ($78 billion), an increase of 20 percent over 2017. Australia's services exports to China even exceed those to the UK and the US combined. Now, China has become Australia's largest trading partner, export destination, source of tourism revenue and foreign students. China is indispensable to Australia's sustained economic prosperity and employment. Deterioration in bilateral relations due to the Australian ruling party has aroused widespread concern and discontentment in Australia. China's recent stepping-up of environmental protection project testing and delay in coal imports have drawn the attention of Australian economic circles and the public, who fear that Australia's growth momentum and the rising employment rate will stagnate and start declining due to the friction in its ties with China. This is the most important economic consideration for the current government to improve relations with China.

The policy adjustment toward China has conspicuous strategic limitations and tactical expediency, limiting recovery prospects of the China-Australia relationship. The current government continues to restrict China-Australia people-to-people exchanges and Chinese investment and mergers and acquisitions in Australia on the pretext of national security and fending off "foreign interference." It not only insists on excluding Huawei from the 5G network construction, but also continues to veto the mergers and acquisitions of Chinese firms including Hong Kong-funded enterprises, such as Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings. It also defined some normal commercial activities as acts against Australian national security and as moves to serve the Chinese government, forcing some pro-China politicians to resign and some Chinese businessmen to sue Australian government agencies and national media outlets, directly leading to a slump in China's recent investment in Australia.

Australia's policy adjustment will not make substantial improvement in its ties with China as Australia keeps collaborating with the US in curbing China's development. While calling for improvement in Beijing-Canberra relations, the current Australian government has made every effort to strengthen its alliance with the US, promote the full implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy and to strive to make Australia the most important military hub of the strategy. Besides building joint military bases in partnership with the US in Australia and Papua New Guinea, it has repeatedly asked the UK, France and other Western countries to pay more attention to the "freedom of navigation" in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, and to increase their military presence in the region.

The above analysis shows that the current Australian government's policy shift is an obvious tactic to serve the upcoming election and sustained economic recovery of Australia. For such expedient policy adjustment, one should pay heed to what the Australian government does, rather than what it says.  

The author is a chief research fellow at the Research Center for Pacific Island Countries, Liaocheng University based in Shandong Province.

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