There’s a Narrow Window to Improve Australia-China Relations

Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese has been sworn in as the new prime minister of Australia. Some Chinese media and netizens think this is a hopeful sign for Australia-China relations: Albanese has a nice chosen Chinese name and speaks Chinese well, like his Labor colleague and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Knowing Chinese well is an asset for foreign politicians to deal with China, but it is not always a good thing for China. The more someone understands you, the more troublesome it may be; your weaknesses, as well as your strengths, will both be clearly seen. That’s why there is a saying in China: “Knowing yourself and the enemy makes you invincible in a hundred battles.”

Therefore, I advise some Chinese media and netizens not to be too optimistic about the relationship between the new Australian government and China. Chinese language skills are not a bellwether of someone’s sentiments toward China. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t speak Chinese, and Russia has a very close friendship with China.

Albanese has not exactly been a “China dove,” either. He slammed the Morrison government for making mistakes that led to a security deal between China and Solomon Islands during the election campaign, describing the deal as a “massive foreign policy failure.”

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However, Australia has a new government, and that alone means that Australia-China relations can indeed be restarted. But the difficulties and challenges must be fully taken into account.

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From China’s point of view, there are two major factors behind the woeful state of Australia-China relations. First, Australia became the first country to restrict Huawei development in the country, and it is not friendly to many Chinese companies. Second, Australia had a close relationship with the former Trump administration in the U.S. on the issue of tracing COVID-19’s origin; both exerted the greatest pressure on China.

Now, however, the Biden administration in the United States has put less pressure on China on the issue of tracing COVID-19’s origin. There was not much mention of it at the 2nd Global COVID-19 Summit held in the U.S. a few weeks ago. There is certainly no need for the new Australian government to continue provoking China on this issue.

In addition, the issue of Chinese companies’ development in Australia involves the different perspectives on national security between China and Australia. A balance point can be found without having to play a zero-sum game. China- EU relations probably is a model.

Given that the influence of these two factors will gradually weaken in the future, improving Australia-China relations is definitely possible.

However, we should remember that Australia-China relations are not only limited by their government’s foreign policies, but also restricted by many social factors, such as public opinion and media power.

A recent poll by the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found 78 percent of Australians said they distrusted the Chinese government, while 84 percent said Beijing was willing to use trade to punish Australia over political disagreements. Support for Australia’s involvement in a hypothetical China-U.S. military conflict over Taiwan rose by 11 points (56 percent). This level of public opinion toward China is enough to restrict the Australian new government’s scope to improve relations with China. But we should also remember that this opinion did not emerge in a vacuum: Most Australians gain knowledge of China issues through the media coverage or the Morrison government’s statements.

One recent poll of Chinese public opinion, meanwhile, found relatively ambivalent views on Australia: Roughly 50 percent of respondents had “very negative” or “negative” views of Australia, while roughly 40 percent had “positive” or “very positive” views. In the absence of more detailed polling, I can only offer my own observations, based on social media posts and the attitudes of people around me.

My opinion is many middle-class Chinese like me have no particular malice toward Australia, and China’s trade restrictions on Australia have not affected their lives: They still eat Australian oatmeal for breakfast, and people also like to taste Australian wagyu beef in Japanese-style hotpot restaurants.

Of course, there are also many Chinese people who don’t have a good impression of Australia because of the Chinese government’s thinking toward Australia. But this is not a big deal – as long as the Chinese government’s attitude toward Australia changes, so will these people.

My long-term observation on China’s diplomacy is that after a new foreign government is formed, the Chinese government usually adopts a “wait-and-see” approach. It should be the same this time. During this period, China will not offer strong criticism of the Australian new government and Chinese state-owned media will be certainly cautious on it. In essence, this will give Australia-China relations a cooling-off period.

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For example, after Trump was elected, Chinese officials and Chinese media also pursued a policy of engagement toward the United States, and did not criticize the U.S. government as much as they did later. It was only months later, when the Chinese government decided the Trump administration was creating a lot of obstacles in Sino-U.S. relations and could not be reasoned with, that Chinese media began to lash out at Washington.

During this period, we can expect there will be a relatively positive change in the attitude of the Chinese people toward Australia. This will only be helped by the background I mentioned at the beginning of this article: that some Chinese media and netizens already think that having a new Australian prime minister who can speak Chinese is good for China.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has sent a congratulatory message to Albanese, which shows China’s goodwill to improve relations.

Therefore, I also suggest that the new Australian government should seize this window of opportunity to improve the relationship by trying its best to actively engage with China and restore the dialogue and communication channels between the two countries, which are very necessary to maintain the development of the relationship.

China and the Morrison government have not communicated above the ministerial level for more than two years. If the Labor government makes a breakthrough on this issue, the relationship will be in a far better state.

But beyond government intentions, there is another factor that is important for Australia-China relations: media power. Public opinion – which acts as a constraint on foreign policy – is often influenced by media coverage.

In terms of foreign policy, the mainstream media in China have been consistent with the government. Therefore, if Chinese officials adopt a period of quiet observation toward Australia, Chinese media will not publish much negative coverage of Australia’s new government. In other words, Chinese media are not going to play the role of a spoiler in a potential rapprochement.

Australian media, however, is a different story.

Media outlets controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which has a lot of influence in Australia, are generally more supportive of conservative governments, like Morrison’s, including on foreign policy. These same outlets had a bad relationship with the last prime minister from the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd. Rudd even called the News Corporation “a cancer on our democracy” and launched a petition to investigate it. Other Labor leaders have also accused News Corporation of helping to instigate a coup d’état that led to cabinet collapse.

To make a comparison to the United States, the New York Times conducted an investigation on News Corp’s direct influence on U.S. government policy during the Trump administration. Now that Trump is out of office, the Fox media company, which belongs to Murdoch’s News Corp, constantly criticizes the Democrats’ China policy – even though the Biden administration’s China policy appears to be tough in China’s view. Fox’s media outlets have been helping Republicans criticize Democrats and turned China policy into a tool for the partisan struggle, which has had a negative impact on China-U.S. relations.

I draw on the U.S. example for a reason: the future Australia-China relationship may be similar to the trajectory of China-U.S. relations.

Trump’s Republican Party is similar to Morrison’s Coalition government, both of which are conservative and have similar policies toward China. Meanwhile, Biden’s Democratic Party and Albanese’s Labor Party have similar ideologies. Biden replaced Trump in 2021, just as Albanese has replaced Morrison.

The biggest difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in their relations with China is that more Democrats pursue a policy of competition plus confrontation plus cooperation with China. By contrast, high-level contacts with China during Trump’s term were basically interrupted. The Republicans were largely not interested in engagement and cooperation with China.

Broadly speaking, I believe future Australia-China relations will replicate Biden’s China diplomacy in some ways.

Is the current China-U.S. relationship good? Obviously not, but it is also obviously a little bit better than when the Republicans were in power. At the very least, the relationship is more under control, with regular interactions between governments. It shows China-U.S. relations are more normal now than they were under the Trump administration.

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It is best for the Australian government under Albanese’s leadership to work in this direction on China affairs as well.

Given the social constraints, we shouldn’t expect Australia-China relations to suddenly become good, just as China-U.S. relations are not flying high under Biden. But there is a window for Australia-China relations to become more normal, because the relationship under the Morrison government was obviously not normal. One of Labor’s tasks after gaining power should be to bring Australia-China relations back to a relatively manageable track, like the Democrats did in the United States.

Artmotion China

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