World · June 24, 2022

After years of acrimony, China and Australia are approaching with caution

SYDNEY, Australia – Four years after Australia’s ties to China entered a downward spiral, with Australia emerging as a strong counterweight to Beijing’s growing power, the two countries have begun exploring whether they can fix. the things.

Since Australia’s new center-left government came to power last month, leaders of both countries have signaled that they want to ease the tensions of recent years. Their disputes over technology, trade barriers, allegations of illicit Chinese influence in Australian politics and each country’s military plans have sometimes exploded to vitriol.

Chinese ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, said on Friday that the change of leadership in Canberra was “an opportunity for a possible improvement of our bilateral relations”.

“There are every reason why China and Australia are friends and partners rather than adversaries,” Xiao said in a speech at Sydney University of Technology. He was interrupted several times by protesters calling on China to end its repression in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. “This man should be a pariah,” shouted one.

Later, Mr. Xiao said, “The atmosphere in both countries needs to be improved, that’s a fact.”

Mr. Xiao used speeches, newspaper comments, and private meetings to make openings that Beijing wants better relationships. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message to Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, after his victory in the May elections, and called for “healthy and stable” ties. Chinese and Australian defense ministers held talks this month at a security forum in Singapore, ending the blockade of ministerial-level meetings since early 2020.

Mr. Albanese said he wanted to restore a high-level dialogue with China, his country’s main trading partner. But he said Beijing must lift trade sanctions on Australia to improve relations and indicated that it will keep the generally tougher line on China that took shape under its conservative predecessors. “There have already been some improvements,” Albanese recently said of ties with China. “But there is still a long way to go.”

The Biden administration and governments across Asia are likely to watch closely for concrete signs of rapprochement. Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison strengthened Canberra’s ties with Washington and presented himself as an example of a way to oppose China. Last year, Morrison signed a defense technology deal with the United States and Britain that could provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

Mr. Albanese and his ministers said they will uphold that agreement and continue to pressure China for its military build-up and activities in the South Pacific. They said they would affirm Australia’s right to send navy ships across the South China Sea, where China claims many islands also claimed by Southeast Asian countries.

Since May, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has visited four Pacific island countries to argue that Australia – implicitly not China – should be their “preferred partner”.

“Ultimately, to stabilize bilateral relations, China should be prepared to tolerate a large degree of continuity in Australia’s China-related set of policies,” said Richard Maude, a former Australian foreign policy official who is now a senior fellow at the Asia Institute of Social Policy.

But Australian leaders say even so, the tone of relations could improve. After meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said “this is only a first step”.

“Both sides are likely to proceed with caution,” Maude wrote in the emailed comments. “Even a less hostile relationship will be inherently unstable and hostage to any number of fundamental differences and disputes.”

Few observers expect relations to return to where they were in 2014, when Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, visited Australia and together with then Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, declared the completion of a free trade pact.

At the time, relationship optimism was underpinned by China’s growing appetite for Australian resources, particularly iron ore and coal, as well as wine, wheat and other agricultural products. Chinese officials and media seemed confident that Australia’s economic dependence on their country would keep tensions in check.

But Australian leaders have become increasingly wary of China’s influence and intentions. China’s military dominance in the South China Sea has alarmed Canberra and other capitals. In 2018, Australia introduced laws, implicitly targeting the Communist Party of China, that prohibit covert political activities on behalf of a foreign government. Australia became the first Western government to stop Huawei and other Chinese telecom equipment companies from helping build its 5G network.

Relationships have cooled even more in recent years. Mr. Morrison asked international investigators – with broad powers such as those of “arms inspectors” – to examine the origin of the coronavirus, which first spread to the central China city of Wuhan. That proposal infuriated Beijing. Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton suggested that China was as overseas as Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Chinese officials denounced Australia’s plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Since 2020, Beijing has imposed punitive tariffs and informal embargoes on Australian products worth approximately $ 16 billion, although it has spared Australia’s exports of iron ore, which is essential for the Chinese industry.

China’s economic retaliation only seemed to reinforce Australia’s public and official distrust of the Chinese government.

“Despite the pressure they have put on Australia, China has not achieved what it set out to do,” Yun Jiang, a colleague at the Australian Institute of International Affairs who studies China, said in an interview. “They probably wanted to change course a bit, and the elections were a good time to do it.”

Beijing could push Australia to open its doors to China joining a new regional trade pact and ease anti-dumping investigations and regulatory barriers to business acquisitions, said Benjamin Herscovitch, a researcher at the Australian National University who writes a Chinese-Australian Relations newsletter.

Canberra is also under pressure to have the Australians detained in China released. They include Yang Hengjun, a writer and businessman who was tried last year for espionage, an allegation he denied, as well as Cheng Lei, a reporter detained in Beijing, where she worked for CGTN, the broadcaster. Chinese state international.

Ms. Cheng, whose two children are in Australia, was tried in March, accused of passing state secrets abroad. The court did not issue a sentence. On Friday, Mr. Xiao, the ambassador, said that Mr. Yang and Ms. Cheng had been granted their legitimate rights.

“Commerce and a number of other things will take time to work,” Nick Coyle, an Australian businessman who is Ms. Cheng’s partner, said in an interview. “But dealing with her case quickly and compassionately and bringing her home to her children and her family would be a good sign.”

On Friday, Mr. Xiao, the Chinese ambassador who took office this year, denied that a list of 14 complaints a Chinese diplomat shared with Australian media in 2020 set the preconditions for restoring normal relations. Complaints included Huawei’s ban, security raids on Chinese journalists, and “antagonistic” media reports on China. Former Australian Prime Minister Morrison said the list showed “how Australia was forced by China” and created a barrier to improve ties.

“I don’t have a list; I’ve never seen a 14-point list, ”said Mr. Xiao. “The concerns have been reported in a convoluted way as the so-called preconditions, as demands. This is not true”.