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No turning back: Aus-China relations take permanent detour

2020 marked an enduring shift in Australia’s relationship with China, according to one analyst, with both nations emboldened by public support for their confrontational stances.

2020 marked an enduring shift in Australia’s relationship with China, according to one analyst, with both nations emboldened by public support for their confrontational stances.

Australia’s once stable, robust, mutually beneficial relationship with China took a drastic turn in 2020, with the regional neighbours butting heads over a swathe of local and international developments.

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Over the past 12 months, Canberra has frustrated Beijing — calling out its human rights abuses, supporting an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, slamming attempts to undermine Australia’s cyber security, and blocking CCP-backed commercial entities (like Huawei) from accessing its market.

In response, Beijing has sought to intimidate Canberra by flexing China’s economic muscle, banning or restricting imports from key industries in hope that a trade-dependent Australia softens its tone.

To China’s dismay, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has doubled down, stressing that the government would not compromise on “matters that go to Australia's national sovereignty”.

And according to Natasha Kassam, research fellow at the Lowy Institute, neither Beijing nor Canberra have a reason to back down, emboldened by public support for their respective stances.

“China’s pressure on Australia has been relentless. And many in China support bringing the pain,” she writes.

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“Wolf warrior diplomacy, a term used to refer to aggressive Chinese diplomats, seems to have inspired Chinese netizens.”

Kassam referenced the CCP’s response to Australian backlash after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted a falsified image depicting an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child.

“Chinese officials unsurprisingly dismissed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s demand for an apology, though his response served to change the narrative from brutal wine tariffs that had been announced a day earlier,” Kassam added.

But this has been equally met by growing disdain for the CCP in Australia.

“As much as Chinese netizens feel wronged, so too is Australian outrage towards China palpable,” Kassam continued.

“Morrison’s ire was well-received by many Australians; the majority supported his call for an apology.”

Indeed, according to an Essential poll, over 60 per cent of respondents believe Australia is an ‘innocent victim’ of China’s trade restrictions.

A 2020 Lowy Institute poll also revealed that trust in China hit a historic low, with almost all Australians supporting a move to reduce trade dependence on China.

“China’s unyielding pressure has only served to harden attitudes in Australia. Despite decades of building influence, Beijing’s friends in Australia are dwindling,” Kassam adds.

“That’s not to say Australians have stopped soul-searching about how the country has ended up here. But most complaints about Canberra’s various missteps point to tone, rather than substance.

“Few have argued that Australia should concede on any of the grievances that Chinese officials have made public."

CCP leveraging clash to advance broader interests

Kassam contends that Beijing may be using its recent clash with Canberra to advance its other strategic interests.

“There are many reasons to believe that China’s plans to limit Australian exports were already in the pipeline,” she writes.

“Chief among them is China’s pursuit of economic self-reliance, described as ‘dual circulation’. Beijing intends to reduce China’s reliance on any one single market — this should sound worrying for those that view Australia’s iron ore exports as ‘safe’. Safe for now, perhaps.”

Kassam adds that Beijing’s aggression may also be aimed at deterring other nations from challenging the CCP in the future.

“The plight of Australian exports sends a powerful signal to other industries and other countries: cross Beijing at your peril,” she continues.

According to Kassam, Beijing’s unwillingness to relent would only limit the policy options available to Canberra, which would likely deal with “hardening” public opinion.  

As such, Kassam sees no immediate end to the Australia-China row.  

“Both the Australian and Chinese governments, buoyed by public support, are unlikely to change the current trajectory of the relationship,” she says.

“No longer will Australians believe that limitless opportunity and profits come without political risk and fraught moral territory.

“There can be no return to the Australia-China relationship of the past. The question for 2021 is how to find a new settling point.”

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

[Related: The Great British ‘Tilt’: PM backs push for bolder Britain in Indo-Pacific]

No turning back: Aus-China relations take permanent detour
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