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  • Writer's pictureDavid James Connolly

A realistic step in relations with Beijing

The cultural cringe that attributes the deterioration in bilateral ties primarily to the Coalition’s ‘out in front’ approach downplays the shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics.


To mark the 50th anniversary of the Whitlam government establishing diplomatic relations between Canberra and Beijing, China’s ambassador to Australia says that dealing with differences in an objective and rational light, based on common interests, can push Sino-Australia relations back on the right track

Appropriately enough, that message echoes the realist thinking of 98-year-old Henry Kissinger – the architect of US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 historic visit to Mao-era Peking that started communist China’s reopening to the world. As we reported on Tuesday, Dr Kissinger told a Financial Times conference that the West will have to stay engaged with the world’s second largest economy, not retreat into neo-cold war isolationism, or cut it out of the global economy like the sanctions punishing Russia for invading Ukraine.

That message should resonate in Australia. Australia’s iron ore and other commodity exports have fuelled modern China’s industrialisation. And the trade boom with rising China is the source of modern Australia’s prosperity. The doubling of Australia’s terms of trade since China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2000 has been critical to our economy emerging relatively unscathed from both the 2008 global financial crisis and the global pandemic of 2020.

The complementarity between the two economies means Australia-China trade has endured despite the deterioration of the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Canberra. For the past two decades, the China boom boost to national income has bolstered living standards.

But the strategic reality that Australia must now confront is the need to devote a larger share of the China trade to the defence deterrent and arming Australia against a more assertive China.

Ambassador Xiao Qian’s urging of a relationship based on mutual respect and mutual benefit is welcome as far as it goes. It’s a step back from the wolf-warrior “diplomacy” and the infamous 14-point “list of grievances” issued in November 2020.

If a genuine olive branch is being extended to Canberra, Beijing should lift its trade bans on Australian beef, barley and wine exports that mostly hurt Chinese consumers. But this should not encourage the naive view that restoring the relationship is as simple as Canberra picking up the phone to Beijing.

Unsophisticated slanging match

The Morrison government hasn’t handled everything perfectly, including rhetorical lapses such as the unilateral call for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 in China. But the cultural cringe – which is part of the election atmospherics – that attributes the deterioration in bilateral ties primarily to the Coalition’s “out in front” approach seriously downplays the shifting tectonic plates of great power geopolitics.

That is as unsophisticated as the slanging match during Sunday night’s leaders’ debate over which party is weak on China. Anthony Albanese pointed the finger at the Coalition for leasing the Port of Darwin to the Chinese, only to be met with Scott Morrison’s charge that deputy Labor leader Richard Marles runs “his speeches past the Chinese government”.

Labor has also opportunistically blamed Beijing’s provocative security agreement with Solomon Islands on the supposed failures of the government’s Pacific Island diplomacy. It’s the crudest politicisation of foreign policy since the elections of the 1960s during the Vietnam War. And it’s unhelpful because it fails to realistically engage with the unprecedented challenge that China poses for Australia.

The reality is that, by and large, the Western foreign policy establishment got the rise of China wrong. Bilateral engagement combined with China’s entry into a rules-based global system, so the “end of history” theory went, would liberalise China both economically and politically.

Instead, as China has grown rich – and made Australia richer – China has changed and is seeking to become powerful under the authoritarian rule of President Xi Jinping.

The great strategic dilemma that Australia therefore faces is that its biggest trade partner has become its main security threat. Hence the recalibration of Australia’s strategic posture, which began in 2016 with Malcolm Turnbull’s banning of China-owned Huawei from participating in Australia’s 5G network build.

Without any pangs, the Morrison government has turned to old friends for back-up against Beijing. Defence ties with Japan and South Korea have been strengthened – showing Australia is still seeking security in, not from, Asia. Australia has championed the four-power Quad to engage India in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

And the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal is Australia’s most important security agreement since the 1951 ANZUS treaty. The $70 billion AUKUS price tag is a down payment on the higher defence spending, sourced partly from the continuing trade with China, that will now shape how Australia manages assertive China’s rise.

Original Article: AFR

Best regards,

David James Connolly

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