China-Australia ties navigate choppy waters

By Xu Qiyu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/27 18:28:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When Vice Admiral Tim Barret, chief of the Royal Australian Navy, visited the National Defense University of China this month, he said he had expected tough questions and was asked difficult ones. As a professional and seasoned commander at sea, Admiral Barret is only too familiar with choppy waters. But this time he had to face something of another nature: the confusion and some annoyance on the Chinese side because of the recent changes in Sino-Australian relations.

Sino-Australian ties had all reasons to be good. Strategically, the two countries harbor no hostility toward each other or do not have any other real security concerns. Territorial disputes that sometimes trouble relations between China and neighboring countries do not exist between the two countries.

Economically, things are even better. With the industrialization and expansion of China's economy, the two nations became natural partners in terms of trade and investment. The free trade agreement in 2015 has taken Sino-Australian trade to a higher level: iron ore, wine and other Australian goods pour into China's market and a third of Australian export reaches the country. At the same time, China's investment in Australia also grows fast. In 2017, Chinese investment flow to Australia rose by 74.3 percent between January and July.

And there are many Chinese citizens in Australia. Chinese students comprise 38 percent of foreign students in Australia and bring with them A$23.6 billion ($18 billion) annually. Chinese tourists are also attracted by the charm Australia offers. In 2005, 4.9 percent of foreign tourists to Australia were Chinese while the number rose to 13 percent in 2016. Many economists believe that Australia is the only Western country that has not seen recession during the last 30 years. No economic expert will deny that China's rapid growth is behind such performance.

However, healthy Sino-Australian relations have gone the other way. In recent years, Australia keeps criticizing China for its "assertiveness" in the South China Sea and views it as a threat in terms of national security. After a few efforts to reassure Australia, China grudgingly admitted that ties were deteriorating.

Nonetheless, some Chinese observers point out that Australia is not the only country in Asia-Pacific region whose economy relies on China while its security relies on the US, and Australia has to display its commitment to the alignment with America. There are not many shared values between China and Australia, they argue, but the common interests are strong and large enough to drive bilateral relations back on track.

Quite opposite to such expectations, bilateral relations navigate choppy waters. In 2016, when the situation in the South China Sea dramatically calmed down due to the restoration of Sino-Philippine relations after President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, Australia raised its criticism of China. To Beijing's surprise, Australia is more aggressive than the US and Japan, who are viewed by many Chinese as strategic competitors in this region.

At a policy level, the defense white paper in 2016 criticized China's policy in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, depicting them as the cause of "uncertainty and tension in our region." At some multilateral forums, Australian officials seem more eager to criticize China than their US and Japanese counterparts. At the operational level, the Australian Air Force takes much more provocative and riskier actions during their Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea than the US aircraft.

Furthermore, closer economic ties with China are also depicted as a threat to Australia, as Professor Alan Dupont, a seasoned analyst did recently. When China became a subject of Australia's domestic political struggle and was accused of "interfering in Australia's domestic politics," China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no choice but to retort. Tensions between Australia and China escalated to a rare level.

Neither Australia nor China benefits from such turbulence. The experience of the Cold War shows that stability and prosperity are always intertwined. With its growing strength, China is striving to maintain a favorable environment by providing more public goods for Asia-Pacific region, and by fostering stable ties with its neighboring countries as well as other major countries in this region.

When people are talking about international rules and principles, no one can deny that China has become an important supporter of the principle of free trade and open international system. In fact, China and Australia have more common ground and more objectives to achieve. And Canberra, as an ally of the US and an important trade partner of China, should be a bridge between the two countries.

The author is deputy director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in China.


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