A Climate Change in China - Australia Relations
Over recent weeks there have been indications that Australia - China relations could be moving into a more positive phase.
This warming of the relationship certainly got a significant boost from Prime Minister Morrison’s address to a largely Australian Chinese audience in Hurstville in early October.
In early November Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was well received at the Shanghai Import Expo where he was interviewed by Chinese state television which showed that the Chinese authorities wanted to send a positive message about Australia to the Chinese public.
These positive developments were further consolidated when Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with her counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing on November 8.
For over a year the Chinese have not invited any Australian ministers to visit China and the decision to have Foreign Minister Payne visit Beijing to have a formal meeting with Wang Yi indicates that the Chinese approach is becoming more positive than it has been over the past year.
The Chinese government’s reluctance to have any formal exchanges with senior Australian officials seemed to a large extent to be a consequence of the Turnbull government’s legislation forbidding foreign interference in Australian politics and the perception that this law was largely aimed at China or motivated by the stream of press stories about China’s alleged soft power.
While prohibiting foreign influence in domestic Australian politics is a sensible approach, there was certainly a lot of media reporting that interpreted cases such Senator Sam Dastyari’s connections with a wealthy Chinese businessman, Huang Xiangmo, as evidence of some form of covert Chinese strategy.
In fact, while no evidence was produced to show that Huang was acting on behalf of the Chinese government, the anti-China rhetoric surrounding this issue would have made Chinese officials feel that they were the target of the legislation.
Foreign Minister Payne’s visit to Beijing required her to deal with some complex and potentially challenging issues.
China’s activities in the South China Sea, including the construction of settlements on some reefs that do not form real islands, are a source of concern.
The implications that these developments could have for freedom of navigation outside the 12 mile limit of these artificial islands is clearly a sensitive issue but there has been no indication that China is seeking to prevent ships from traveling through the South China Sea.
Indeed, if China did limit shipping routes through that region, it would have a negative impact on the Chinese economy because much of China’s trade passes through that region.
The announcement that the Morrison government plans to prevent the CKI company from acquiring the Australian Pipeline Authority could also have a negative impact on Chinese attitudes.
In fact CKI is a Hong Kong-based company owned by Li Ka Shing, a Hong Kong businessman who is regarded as the wealthiest man in Asia.
The Chinese reaction to this decision could well be mixed.
On the one hand they are unlikely to view it as a serious challenge to Chinese interests but, on the other hand, they could regard it as a signal that Australia had limited understanding of the dynamics of the Chinese economy after the return of Hong Kong and a negative view of all Chinese connected entities.
A further potentially complicating factor is Australia’s public criticism of China’s detention of a large number of Uighur Muslims in so-called “education camps” in Xinjiang Province.
Australia was one of thirteen countries that criticised this Chinese activity at a United Nations Human Rights Council event in Geneva and this would have a negative influence on Chinese attitudes.
But the fact that Australia was not a leading player at that event could well limit its negative impact on Payne’s discussions in Beijing.
While Payne had to deal with a number of challenging issues, the Chinese seem prepared to deal with Australia in a way that helps ensure that Australia does not simply follow Trump’s anti-China policies.
The fact that the Australian government has continued to emphasise the importance of its trade relationship with China will be seen in Beijing as a sign that Australia is taking an independent approach and not simply joining Trump in his trade war with China.
Foreign Minister Payne’s discussions in Beijing are therefore unlikely to resolve all sources of tension but could well open the way to a series of constructive discussions in the future.