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Foreign Policy

China-Australia Turbulence

Jan 06, 2021
  • Su Jingxiang

    Fellow, China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations

Since the beginning of this year, the Morrison administration of Australia has in various political, economic, diplomatic and ideological fields attacked China beyond the bounds of diplomatic protocol, leading to a drastic deterioration in bilateral relations. The current situation has not arrived by accident but is an integral part of the American strategy to contain China. 

Australia has a land area of nearly 7.7 million square kilometers. With the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions to its north, the country occupies an extremely important geostrategic position. That is why, for more than 70 years after World War II, the United States has valued political engagement with the island continent, which has long been its loyal ally –  most recently in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. 

Given that the Indo-Pacific region is at the center of China-U.S. strategic competition, creating an alliance between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan (the “Quad”) has been America’s top priority. Of those, Australia occupies a special position as America’s political agent. 

The U.S. has a long tradition of meddling in Australian politics. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was forced out of office in 2010 and replaced by Julia Gillard as a result of political maneuvering by the American intelligence apparatus, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. Rudd had proposed withdrawing Australian troops from the War in Afghanistan and suggested that the U.S. give China some space for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. facilitated the change of administration in Australia through secret political gambits. 

In the second volume of his memoir published in 2018, Rudd detailed the events but did not get the point through directly. He only stressed that it was the leader of the Australian Jewish community that orchestrated his downfall. 

Australia has a small population – just over 25 million – but is extremely rich in natural resources, with great quantities of coal, iron, copper and other minerals, as well as agricultural products for export. Over the past 20 years, Australia has become part of the Asia-Pacific economic circle by virtue of this resource advantage. With rising export prices of coal, iron ore and other products, the country’s terms of trade have been greatly improved and its economy has continued to grow, with very low unemployment, low inflation and low public debt. Its financial system is stable. Many people of vision in the Australian political and business communities believe that their country’s future lies with an open market, a multicultural society and a deeper integration in a prosperous and promising Asia-Pacific economic circle. 

In November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Australia to attend the G20 summit in Brisbane and addressed the Australian Federal Parliament. This marked a high point in China-Australia relations. A free trade agreement came into force in 2015 and Australian goods have flooded the Chinese market since then. 

In 2019, China accounted for 29 percent of Australia’s agricultural, fishery and forestry exports, according to an Australian government survey. Around 80 percent of Australia’s export earnings from infant formula, wool, lobsters, lumber, leather and hides came from China. A McKinsey & Company report found that China had imported 52 million tons of metallurgical coal in 2019, 80 percent of which came from Australia. China is the world’s largest importer of iron ore, and Australia is the largest exporter. According to the World Steel Association, in 2019, Australia accounted for about 60 percent of global iron ore shipments by sea. More than 60 percent of China’s iron ore imports were from Australia. 

For all its close economic ties with China, views in Australia’s political circles, academia and mainstream media align strongly with those of the U.S. government. In December 2017, the Trump administration issued its New National Security Strategy for a New Era, officially identifying China as the country’s main rival. 

In early 2018, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Lowy Institute, among other leading think tanks, released a study describing China’s “silent invasion” of Australia and arguing that China is Australia’s enemy as it seeks to dominate the world. 

In August 2018, right-wing Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison came to power after the Labor Party government stepped down. He immediately adopted a fight-to-the-death posture, took all kinds of offensive actions against China, forcing China to react and fight back. 

Polls show that ordinary Australians see drought, the coronavirus pandemic, the global economic downturn, environmental disasters and climate change as the main threats for their country. These can only be addressed through diplomacy, international cooperation and development. But Australia’s foreign policy has been dominated by militaristic hawks. 

In July, the Australian Department of Defence published its 2020 Defence Strategic Update and  Force Structure Plan, the tone and phrasing of which are consistent with those of the new U.S. national security policy by explicitly identifying China as Australia’s main threat. The policy points outlined in the report reveal clearly that Australia will base its national security strategy on China-U.S. strategic competition and enhance Australian leadership in its regional neighborhood by assisting the U.S. in containing China. 

From this point of view, conflicts between China and Australia are not transient, but long-term and strategic.

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