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A rising power looks down under: Chinese perspectives on Australia

Posted By on March 6, 2014 @ 06:00

Team flags fly at the International Service Rifle Championship at the Australian Army Skill at Arms Meeting (AASAM) held at Puckapunyal Military Range in September 2013

Today ASPI has released a Strategy paper examining Chinese perspectives on Australia. Dr Jingdong Yuan has drawn from official Chinese documents, leaders' statements, media coverage, academic analyses, and interviews with specialists to provide a detailed insight into Chinese views of Sino-Australian relations. Using this insight, Dr Yuan provides recommendations to the government on the continued development of the growing relationship between Australia and China. Here's the executive summary:

Sino-Australian diplomatic, economic and security ties have experienced significant growth over the past four decades. The general trends have been positive, especially in the economic area, where the two countries have developed strong and mutually beneficial interdependence. China has become Australia’s largest trading partner, and its growing demands for resources will continue to affect Australian economic wellbeing. Australia, in turn, has become a major destination for Chinese tourists and a favoured choice for higher education. Canberra has played an important role in encouraging and drawing China into regional multilateral institutions such as APEC, and the two countries have cooperated on major international and regional issues. However, bilateral relations periodically encounter difficulties and occasionally suffer major setbacks, largely due to differences in ideologies and sociopolitical systems, issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and human rights, and emerging challenges ranging from cybersecurity to the geostrategic shift in the region marked by China’s rise and the US’s rebalancing to Asia.

While there have been substantive debates in Australia on the implications of China’s rise, much less is known about Chinese perspectives on Australia. In many respects, Beijing continues to express confidence in a stable and cooperative bilateral relationship; at the same time, it recognises important structural constraints on the nature and scope of that relationship. That Australia remains a faithful ally of the US suggests that Canberra’s foreign and security policy is affected by American policy towards the Indo-Pacific and Washington’s relationship with Beijing. Indeed, US–China strategic rivalry poses the most serious dilemma for Australian foreign policy. The assumptions are that major trade-offs are inevitable and that Canberra will side with Washington in any serious conflict between the US and China, from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, leading to major setbacks in Sino-Australian relations and very serious economic disruption for Australia. From Beijing’s point of view, Australia would be making a serious mistake by assisting any potential and future US military operations against China by providing its ports, bases and facilities as depots and resting or staging grounds, and hence becoming an enabler in such operations. The consequences could be dire indeed.

Chinese analysts are paying closer attention not only to Australia–US relations, but also to Australia’s aspirations and role as a proactive and creative middle power in regional and global affairs, especially where Canberra’s diplomacy affects issues important to Beijing. Those areas range from nuclear arms control and disarmament, humanitarian interventions and trade negotiations to maritime territorial disputes. While acknowledging Australia’s middle-power role, Chinese analysts note the limitations and constraints on what Canberra can do. In recent years, Australia’s also engaged in various security initiatives or arrangements with US allies and partners in the region, in particular with Japan and India. Some have characterised the Australian relationship with Japan as a quasi-alliance, while the relationship with India has potential security implications for China, given the emerging importance of the Indo-Pacific concept. From Beijing’s perspective, it’s critical that China and Australia maintain and develop dialogue between their leaders, diplomats and military officers.

There’s a great deal of consensus among Chinese analysts on the state of Australia–China economic ties and their future growth potential, although many also suggest that significant barriers still exist to Chinese investments in Australia’s resources and agricultural sectors, especially investments by state-owned enterprises. From under $100 million in 1972 to $120 billion in 2012, Australia–China two-way trade has registered breathtaking growth over the past four decades: between 2000 and 2010, the annual growth rate averaged 24.8%. Having replaced Japan as Australia’s no. 1 trading partner in 2007, China has become Australia’s largest export market, accounting for 22.6% of total exports, and its largest source of imports at 15.3%. While still small compared to US and the UK investments, Chinese investments in recent years have also experienced sizeable growth, mainly in the mining sectors but also in agriculture.

Beijing seeks to build long-term and stable economic ties with Australia based on mutual benefits. Chinese leaders have emphasised the importance of building economic ties with strategic vision. Given China’s need for resources, Beijing clearly is more interested in stable and reliable energy and commodity trade while looking for new areas of cooperation, such as in services and infrastructure, including telecommunications. Beijing also hopes that Chinese companies, including state-owned enterprises, can be given fair and non-discriminatory treatment when their investment applications are reviewed by Australian authorities.

China’s rise offers opportunities as much as it presents challenges to Australian foreign policy. Experience has shown that misplaced expectations and ill-conceived ‘grand visions’ can encounter significant hurdles in implementation, and under-delivering or failing to deliver can cause disappointment or even lead to misunderstandings. Pragmatism, along with feasible and achievable objectives, dedicated resources and committed political will, is a critical ingredient of success. Managing the China challenge must start from well-defined national interests as an overall guide to set and prioritise objectives, formulate policies and allocate resources. Australia needs a stable international environment and continued economic growth. A realistic, stable, and forward-looking relationship with China is imperative.

The Abbott government should have a China policy that’s the result of multi-agency consultation, bipartisan support and internal cohesion within the Coalition and is presented in a unified voice. Canberra should be results-oriented and problem-solving to promote national interests and place less emphasis and diplomatic capital on merely making political statements and grandstanding, which mightn't be as effective as wished for and, at worst, could be counterproductive.

Dr Jingdong Yuan is associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies and the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, where he is also an academic member of the China Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

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[1] Image: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/AusChina-flag.jpg

[2] a Strategy paper examining Chinese perspectives on Australia: https://www.aspi.org.au/publications/a-rising-power-looks-down-under-chinese-perspectives-on-australia

[3] Department of Defence: http://images.defence.gov.au/20130516adf8225051_77.jpg