When China’s National Development and Reform Commission announced the indefinite suspension of all activities under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue on May 6, an outcry broke out in Australia describing the decision as more proof of China’s “economic coercion.” But the truth is that China suspended the mechanism out of necessity because it has no other options on the table. For Australia, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This was years in the making. As early as 2017, Australia began to lead the charge in the anti-China campaign, hyping China’s “political infiltration” in the country, introducing the world’s first law against so-called foreign interference and trying in different ways to discredit and disrupt regular interactions with China. In 2018, citing national security risks, Australia became the first country to ban Huawei from supplying equipment for a 5G mobile network.
In 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, instead of boosting international efforts against the virus, Canberra was obsessed with shifting blame to China and was one of the loudest supporters of the presumption of guilt regarding the traceability of the virus. Then in 2021, as nations are working to enhance economic recovery, the Australian government has begun to focus on closing “policy loopholes” that could contribute to bilateral friendship. For example, the government tore up the Belt and Road cooperation agreement between Victoria state and China’s National Development and Reform Commission, in accordance with the newly introduced Foreign Relations Act. This move has also placed in jeopardy the lease deal between the Northern Territory government and Landbridge Group, a Chinese company, and added to the uncertainty surrounding the prospect of two-way exchanges between institutions of higher education and the operation of Confucius Institutes in the country. Since normal exchanges and cooperation between the two countries are undermined by hidden agendas in Australia, China has understandably launched necessary and legitimate countermeasures.
China and Australia have no direct conflicts of interest or border disputes, but in recent years, Australia has played a growing role in the anti-China campaign, which has raised concerns in Australian society and surprised its regional neighbors as well. Canberra readily gives high-sounding reasons for its China-bashing activities, but a closer examination of these reasons reveals its hypocrisy and shortsightedness.
Citing the need to “defend democratic values and Australia’s sovereignty,” the Australian government in recent years has hyped such claims as political infiltration by China, economic aggression and cyber-invasion to stir up hostile public opinion toward China and facilitate China-bashing legislation. But so far it has failed to produce any compelling evidence to buttress these claims.
To the government, it does not matter whether or not its anti-China moves are based on facts on the ground. What is really important is that as a result of the rhetoric, Australian security and intelligence agencies have expanded their powers, the defense budget has been significantly increased and the federal government has taken back the right that used to be enjoyed by state and territory governments, local governments and universities to enter into agreements with foreign countries and entities. In this context, even the opposition Labor Party finds it difficult to say no to the anti-China policy of the coalition government, because in doing so, it would likely be described as pro-communist. Clearly, the anti-China moves by the Australian government are intended not for the interests of the Australian people but for the political interests of a privileged few.
Australia also describes itself as a country brave enough to confront China’s “economic coercion” and committed to “ending its trade dependence on China.” In reality, however, it pretends to be a victim after reaping tremendous benefits. Driven by trade for resources, China has been Australia’s largest trading partner and largest export market since 2009. Instead of valuing its economic complementarity with China, Australia sees this as an economic threat.
As a result of its political manipulation, bilateral political dialogues are now in tatters, trade frictions continue to escalate and, to its chagrin, Canberra finds that the gap left by its withdrawal from the Chinese market is rapidly being filled by its democratic partners. This is why Australian companies, disappointed with the government’s efforts that have undermined relations with its largest trading partner, have begun to take the initiative to ease tensions between the two countries.
In addition, Australia has long seen itself as a defender of regional peace and stability, claiming that it will leverage its impact as “a creative middle power.” But its current moves are the very opposite of what it preaches. The world is in the midst of a once-in-a-century transformation, and the center of gravity of global politics is undoubtedly moving to the East. Despite these developments, Australia still sticks to the Cold War mentality and takes it upon itself to maintain the global supremacy of other countries.
It also fails to recognize that its unprincipled and unscrupulous actions against China, its largest trading partner and a major country in the Pacific region, bring more uncertainties and risks to itself and even the wider region. While nations in the region strive to manage crises and avoid military miscalculation, a senior Australian security official warned that the “drums of war are beating.” It’s no wonder that former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd publicly denounced attempts to bet on Australia’s core economic and security interests for political gain as “childish and shameful.”
Diplomacy is first and foremost meant to serve the interests of a nation. Without doubt, Australia has paid a heavy price as it has counted on the United States to contain China for the sake of “America first.” More important, there is a strong possibility that its strategic value and bargaining chips as a middle power will be eroded dramatically if it continues its China-bashing activities in an era of uncertainty.