Australia-China Relations Need Re-thinking, Not Re-set

Australia-People’s Republic of China (PRC) relations appear to be on a healthy win-win-win track.

Australia’s federal ministers are back on talking terms with their PRC counterparts, visits to the PRC are resuming from Canberra and by state premiers, our longsuffering ambassador in Beijing, Graham Fletcher, is finally getting to meet appropriate Chinese peers, and some of the commodities that Beijing had barred are starting to reach PRC markets again.


The PRC’s ambassador Xiao Qian envisions a ‘new frontier’ of productive relations, as Chinese students return to Australian campuses, trade resumes on a broad basis, and Chinese investors succeed in taking over Australian targets.


At the same time, Canberra has been praised in both Western and regional countries for standing up for Australian and broadly liberal democratic values and interests in the face of PRC pressure, through a range of measures such as denying Huawei access to the 5G roll-out, and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.  The Economist has lauded how ‘Australia has stood up to Chinese bullying and thrived.’


Such a win-win-win presents a case for this being an especially brilliant hour for Australian foreign policy. But relating to the PRC continues to present unique challenges. And less widely discussed, are concomitant successes for the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

For instance, it is now more than a decade since Craig Emerson became the last Australian trade minister to visit Taiwan. Yet in the decade to 2002, under Labor and coalition administrations, twelve federal government visits took place—seven at the ministerial level and five at the level of assistant minister or parliamentary secretary. The decline coincides with the ramping-up by Beijing of its efforts to ‘reunify’ with Taiwan.

Australia can do a great deal with Taiwan short of diplomatic recognition, which Taipei – favouring the status quo – doesn’t seek, including building closer cultural and commercial connections. Yet except in Queensland (which has the highest population of Taiwan-born residents), Taiwan’s representatives or businesspeople are rarely granted a meeting with anyone senior in a state government. This is not a party issue – it’s no different in Tasmania, the sole Liberal administration, than in Labor-run states, Queensland excepted. State governments do not discuss openly why this is so. But pressure from Chinese consulates, which maintain substantial, routine contacts with state governments and officials, would be a factor.

Taiwan has recently become Australia’s fourth largest export market, but the only one in the top ten with which Australia lacks a free trade agreement. Tokyo has explicitly welcomed Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), while Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says: ‘We will deal with applications that are dealt with by consensus for economies applying to join the CPTPP.’

Deakin University Associate Professor Lennon Chang, President of the Australasian Taiwan Studies Association, told the Australian parliamentary inquiry into expanding CPTPP membership that Taiwan, as a leading ICT developer in the Indo-Pacific region, would be a responsible partner, its membership aligning with Australia’s cyber strategy ‘for a safe, secure and prosperous Australia, Indo-Pacific and world, enabled by cyberspace and critical technology’.

The removal of space for Taiwan and Taiwanese companies and individuals to operate internationally is a key goal for PRC diplomats, and they have enjoyed considerable success with it.

Ambassador Xiao wrote in a widely-published commentary that ‘Taiwan is part of China’s territory. Taiwan has belonged to China since ancient times’ – which are both standard and historically disputable claims, the first dynasty to exercise any form of rule over the island being the Qing, in the 17th century. Again, echoing the Communist Party’s longtime playbook Xiao called Taiwan one of China’s ‘core interests, which brooks no foreign interference and allows no political manipulation.’

In December 1972, within the core diplomatic statement that established formal ties with the PRC, Canberra said it ‘recognises the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, and acknowledges the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan is a province of the PRC.’  The Taiwan government has long abandoned any pretence or interest to rule China, while Australia simply ‘acknowledges’ Beijing’s claim to rule Taiwan. These days, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy with a similar sized population to Australia, and a world-leading tech industry. It slid into technical recession in the first quarter of 2023 as global tech demand slowed, with semi-conductors comprising 38 per cent of all Taiwan’s exports. But a rebound into positive growth is widely forecast by analysts for the year as a whole. Most Taiwanese are fed up with being viewed through the lens of China’s ambitions or China-US rivalry. Polling by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center in 2022 underlined the strength of Taiwanese desire to maintain the status quo. Only 1.3 percent of respondents wanted unification with the mainland ‘as soon as possible’, while just 5.1 percent desired immediate formal independence.

Canberra’s reluctance to pursue closer relations with Taiwan can be seen as a form of collateral damage of its fear of being returned to Beijing’s ‘sin bin’. Yet Benjamin Herscovitch of the ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance notes that ‘Beijing claims that the Taiwanese government isn’t entitled to join groupings like the CPTPP because the world shares China’s view that Taiwan is simply part of the PRC.’ He argues that ‘these claims misrepresent the supposed international support for China’s preferred one-China principle, gloss over the diversity of one-China policies, and ignore how commonplace it is for free trade agreements and other groupings to include entities that aren’t recognised as de jure sovereign states.’

Taipei has long requested the exchange of military attaches, but Canberra has not agreed. According to Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute, ‘Australia won’t have the luxury of keeping its head down on Taiwan indefinitely.’

For Australian politicians to be able to speak to their PRC counterparts, and the slow return of trade affected by the 2020 sanctions, is a relief – but it cannot be perceived as an advance in terms of where the relationship stood only eight years ago, when the Australia-PRC FTA came into force, or before that, when mutual visits by political leaders were common. Xi Jinping, last visited Australia in 2014, when his side-trip to Tasmania completed his travels to every state over the years.

The PRC ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, said in March in Brisbane: ‘We have basically stabilised the relationship between the countries… There is not a single area where China and Australia have to confront each other… (China’s) policy towards Australia is a friendly policy.’ He spoke of working together towards a ‘new frontier’ of economic relations and on climate change, and said that ‘we are open to welcome Australia to come back to the Belt and Road (Initiative)’ to which the Victorian government committed itself in 2018, but which the federal coalition government required it to leave under the Foreign Arrangements Scheme of December 2020.

And yet… much remains problematic in the relationship. The straightforward access for Australian goods and some services that was agreed with the signing of an FTA, whose core aim is to shelter commerce from political swings, has yet to be fully restored, although current moves are in the right direction. Trade Minister Senator Don Farrell’s Beijing visit on May 11-12 comprised such a step, but the resulting progress was more rhetorical than practical, except for timber exports. Australians Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun have been incarcerated since August 2020 and January 2019 respectively, without any public trial or even a clear account of why they were arrested in the first place. So much official pressure was placed on Australian journalists covering China that the last ones left in 2020, so that there is now no direct coverage of events or trends there by Australian media.

Ambassador Xiao readily obtains non-curated access to Australia’s mass media and social media, as well as live audiences, in a way unavailable in China to our ambassador Graham Fletcher – although this has long been the case, and is not unique to Australia. A majority of Chinese Australians regularly use the strictly censored WeChat platform, owned by Chinese giant Tencent.

The European Union, Canada, Britain and the US have applied the Magnitsky Accords, or similar sanctions against those responsible for human rights abuses against Chinese citizens responsible for oppressive actions in Xinjiang. Canberra has held back from following suit. However, greater distance from the PRC is now entrenched in the strategic space, with AUKUS and the Quad becoming core Australian commitments.

Most of the Australian population remains concerned about the PRC. Lowy Institute polling last year found 75 per cent of respondents thought it somewhat likely that China would pose a military threat to Australian in the next twenty years. China was described as more security threat by 63 per cent and 33 per cent as more economic partner. At the same time, a perception has grown among Australian politicians and political analysts, that voters of ethnic Chinese background will penalise parties that are deemed to be ‘anti Chinese.’ The Communist Party of China (CPC), which claims that it represents China’s history, culture and population (including people of Chinese ethnicity living outside China), fosters the perception that to criticise it, or its policies, is racist.

Recent statistics show that although people born in the PRC comprise the second largest group of permanent migrants to Australia, they come only tenth among those groups to have taken the opportunity to become citizens, with just 36 percent doing so. Voting trends among people of Chinese ethnicity remains a complex and little explored issue. But insofar as the perception is becoming entrenched among politicians and their advisors in Canberra and the state capitals that public criticism of the PRC or CPC can provoke electoral pain, this will impact Australian political behaviour.

While priority is given to full restoration of relations with the PRC, the question remains as to whether security and trade can be considered separately. The risk remains, that further – perhaps even inadvertent – political infringements as perceived by Beijing, may see markets again blocked. If Beijing over-extends its ambitions to seize Taiwan, the resulting sanctions would replicate – at least – those that have hit Russia and its commercial partners since the Ukraine invasion. It appears especially important now for corporations and governments – both federal and state – to audit their economic vulnerability.

A related question is whether interests can or should be disconnected from values. For Xi himself, for whom the party encapsulates every corporate virtue and who focuses fully on the ideological landscape, that is impossible: ‘Government, military, civil society, schools, north, south, east, west, and the centre – the party leads all.’

In the immediate term, perhaps the most elevated goal is for Prime Minister Albanese to tread, 50 years on, in the footsteps of his predecessor Gough Whitlam’s ground-breaking visit to the PRC from October 31 to November 4, 1973, presumably with the aim of engaging with Xi in the Great Hall of the People. Kevin Magee, a former representative of Australia in Taiwan, has summarised: ‘In order to get this far with Beijing, the Albanese government has dialled down its rhetoric on China but has also provided concessions on sensitive issue for China such as Taiwan, Magnitsky sanctions, Port of Darwin review etc.’ [1] Visits and meetings are important, though their significance can understandably be over-weighted in the diplomatic world.

What is less clear is the bigger-picture aim, where the relationship with the PRC is ultimately headed. It’s a conundrum, in both policy and rhetoric terms. But might the framework of a ‘new Australia-China accord,’ as China expert John Fitzgerald describes it, be already falling into place, unselfconsciously? [2] One that might be emerging from a ‘Fear of Abandonment’ as the late and much lamented Allan Gyngell’s influential book of foreign policy history and analysis is titled – only not, as originally framed, fear of abandonment by Western partners Britain or the US, but now by the PRC?

An important element in such framing, a core goal of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the successful deployment of discourse power.

Much relief has been evinced at the claimed end of ‘wolf warrior’ rhetoric from PRC spokespeople. That’s probably as true for MFA’s many professional diplomats, as for those who had been on the receiving end. But harsh words remain part of the armoury, as demonstrated recently by the PRC ambassadors to the Netherlands and France.

Two years ago the PRC’s Politburo held a study session at which General Secretary Xi emphasised the need ‘to form international discourse power that matches our comprehensive national power and international status,’ creating a favourable ‘external public opinion environment.’

Recent remarks by Paul Keating appear to have given permission for a new wave of criticism of Australia and its Asian friends and Western allies, while taking less note of what is said and done by the PRC/CCP or its leaders. Such debates are natural in transparent societies, and they underline a core difference from the Cold War era, when Soviet engagement with Australia and rhetoric favouring the USSR were negligible. But longer term complexities are mounting as China’s ‘rise’ – perceived formerly as inexorable – instead flatlines as its economy matures and demographic decline comes into play. For prosperity, which was until COVID-19 a sufficient domestic legitimising force for the CCP in itself, is now sublimated beneath security issues by Xi and his team, in both policy and presentational terms.

Australian Labor politicians have rightly been commended for the discipline of their PRC discourse. It is also important, however, to reserve the right to speak up for Australian values and interests as their leadership roles require.

Tone matters. But if the tone adopted by Australia morphs into one which is perceived to defer to PRC discourse power, that will be time for a review before it becomes a habit.

Consul-General Zhou Limin described ‘a correct understanding’ as ‘the prerequisite for the sustainable development of China-Australian relations.’ He is right, of course, about understanding. The problem is that while Australia sustains myriad versions of political correctness, Beijing’s perspective, especially under Xi, is singular.

It’s sad that such reservations are inevitable when grappling with a polity as pervasive and ambitious – and important, of course – as Xi’s CPC. Roll on the day when we can enjoy less conditional, unclouded relationships with our many friends, and their businesses, universities and other organisations in China. That day may come, and Australians will applaud it, but it’s not going to dawn as a result of Canberra’s efforts alone, welcome as they may be.


[1] Kevin Magee, Australia China Relations Brief, February 15 2023

[2] Cited with John Fitzgerald’s permission from a post by him on the private Chinapol platform

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