Third-party mediation can hardly break impasse between China, Australia
Published: Feb 02, 2021 10:28 PM

A man walks along a wharf in Wellington, capital of New Zealand, on September 22, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

China-Australia ties have hit their lowest ebb since diplomatic relations were established. 

Now, there are discussions about whether New Zealand can mediate between the two countries. For example, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Tuesday published an article entitled, "Could New Zealand serve as an 'honest broker' to repair ties between China and the West?"

It is difficult for Wellington to mediate between China and Australia.  China-Australia relations are indeed in a bad situation. Canberra has gone too far. That being said, China-New Zealand relations have maintained a relatively good state. Both New Zealand and Australia are members of the Five Eyes Alliance, and the relationship between them is special and close. 

However, New Zealand's national strength may not be enough to act as a broker in this case. It would be a good thing if New Zealand can play an effective role in this dispute. But the country will find it difficult to mediate China-Australia relations since Canberra has crossed many bottom lines in dealing relations with Beijing.

By contrast, on January 26 China and New Zealand signed a protocol that upgrades their free trade agreement (FTA). This has different meanings for New Zealand and Australia. For New Zealand, the new protocol shows that its relations with China have made considerable progress in the new era. 

However, for Australia, the new protocol may be a reminder as trade relations between Beijing and Canberra have encountered a lot of troubles. Both New Zealand and Australia are Western countries, but it must be asked: Why can the former upgrade its FTA with China, while the latter handles its relations with China badly? New Zealand's Trade Minister Damien O'Connor on Thursday suggested that Australia needs to "show respect" to China. Obviously, Canberra has not reflected on its own responsibilities.

Clearly, New Zealand and Australia have different attitudes toward China's rise. New Zealand is not much touched when the West hypes up the so-called China threat theory. That being said, New Zealand has no so-called security anxiety.

On this topic, the SCMP quoted an analyst as saying that China and the Five Eyes are not enemies. They are indeed not enemies. But the Five Eyes are increasingly united in their efforts to put pressure on China over certain issues. The very notion that New Zealand can serve as an "honest broker" to help ease tensions between the two sides has exaggerated the country's strength.

New Zealand will host the virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2021. And New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in December that the summit presents an opportunity for her country to bring both China and Australia to the table to talk. Wellington has been hoping to play a mediating role for some time. This is not only because it has close historical ties with Australia, but also because of close economic and trade relations with China. Sandwiched in between the two, New Zealand feels awkward. It is thus attempting to help them maintain a normal relationship to benefit its own interests. 

However, the problem between China and Australia lies in the fact that the latter can hardly accept the rise of the former. It is not an issue that can be resolved by a third party. China's emergence poses a huge influence to its ties with Australia, and the entire region. But Australia has been holding an increasingly negative attitude toward the trend. Against this backdrop, Canberra violated the basic principle of mutual respect with its interactions with China. Worse still, it has been provoking China time and again, leading to where they are today. This is the core issue of all discord between Beijing and Canberra. 

Wellington will find it difficult to mediate in such a situation. It could at most be a messenger between the two. But New Zealand itself can be a proof - Even a "Five Eyes" country can maintain a good relationship with China and with the US at the same time. 

The author is an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn