The Turnbull government is largely to blame for derailing Australia’s relationship with China, experts say, after it was called out by the Chinese foreign minster for continued criticism.
Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Yi said Australia must remove its “coloured glasses” and “look at China’s development from a positive angle”, following a meeting with Australia’s Foreign Minister Julia Bishop in Argentina on Tuesday.
Dr James Laurenceson, deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney, said the Chinese government feels Australia has singled it out and “said things that no other US ally is saying about its development”.
For example in March 2017, Ms Bishop said China will never fulfil its entire economic potential unless it transitions to a democracy.
“You achieve absolutely nothing by saying that, and no previous Australian government since Gough Whitlam recognised China back in 1972 has used that sort of language,” Dr Laurenceson said.
In December 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced plans to completely overhaul foreign interference and anti-espionage laws, citing concerns over Chinese interference in Australian politics.
But the latest was when Liberal MP Andrew Hastie used the cover of parliamentary privilege on Wednesday night to accuse prominent Australian-Chinese businessman Chau Chak Wing of bribing a now-dead UN president.
“The Australian government needs to stop singling China out. There’s no gains, there’s no benefits from doing so,” Dr Laurenceson said.
Australia’s relationship with China is “challenged at the moment,” he said.
“I don’t think we can be confident that the bilateral relationship is on track or heading in a smooth direction.
“There’s little sign of yet that things are settling down.”
In contrast, Mr Turnbull told reporters on Wednesday that Australia has a “good, frank … very strong” relationship with China,” .
This was despite Chinese communist party mouthpiece The Global Times declaring on Wednesday that China’s relationship with Australia was “among the worst of all Western nations”, following the accusations against Chau Chak Wing.
The editorial suggested “cooling” bilateral relations for “a few years or even longer” by freezing trade and cutting Australian beef and wine imports “will be a good lesson for Australia to learn”.
ACRI, based out of the University of Technology, Sydney, receives funding from several businesses and individuals with strong links to China. It was established with a $1.8million grant from the founder and chairman of the Yuhu property development and investment group, Huang Xiangmo.
Why single out China?
Firstly, China’s rise has been “so rapid” that it’s shocked Australian defence and security officials who are seemingly “uncomfortable” with the challenge this has posed to American hegemony, Dr Laurenceson said.
Secondly, Donald Trump’s presidency in the US has made Australia feel “more vulnerable”.
“That means we are more sensitive to countries that we are not particularly familiar with such as China.”
Thirdly, the Turnbull government has publicly highlighted the risk China has posed to its national security because Australia is “not in a position of political strength”, Dr Laurenceson said.
It is “not unusual for Australian governments to focus on issues around national security when they’re in a politically vulnerable position”, he added.
‘Problems run deeper’
The issues surrounding Australia-China relations go beyond China simply objecting to statements made by Australian politicians, Dr Pradeep Taneja, specialising in Chinese politics at the University of Melbourne, said.
China is trying to reshape the global order by influencing a “relatively inconsequential country” like Australia, he said.
“China is clearly taking advantage of the situation where we have an America president who can’t be trusted, who is very inconsistent with what he says and does.”
If Australia continues along a negative rhetoric towards China, Dr Taneja said “Chinese ministers will not meet with Australian politicians or minsters” and “China will deny visas to Australian officials and Australian ministers”.
Counterpoint: China needs Australia
The Chinese government won’t attempt to damage ties with Australia or hand down harsh punishments because that will only hurt its own strategic interests, Dr Kevin Carrico, Chinese studies lecturer at Macquarie University, said.
“China probably needs Australia considerably more than Australia needs China.”
China is heavily reliant on Australian products, Dr Carrico said.
“I don’t think there’s any intention to attempt to replace them because this would be an extremely difficult and complex process.”
The political relationship between Australia and China “may not be ideal” but “this relationship is never going to be easy or smooth or without its issues”, he said.
“People are blowing problems in the relationship out of proportion and very much ignoring the larger healthy relationship generally in terms of trade and exchange.
“I consider it unlikely there would be a deeper worsening of relations.”