Are China and Australia now ‘frenemies’? What recent developments really say about our relationship.

Tensions between China and Australia are at an all-time high in wake of an escalating political crisis between the two countries. Australia’s diplomatic relationship with China has traversed on rocky ground for years, albeit occurring somewhat more covertly prior to 2020. The recent cancellation of two leading Chinese scholars Australian visas, the evacuation of Australian correspondents Bill Birtles and Mike Smith from China, and the detention of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, all are indicative that the relationship between Canberra and Beijing is now souring at an unprecedented rate. Given China accounts for 49 percent of Australia’s total exported goods, how worried should we be about our relationship dismantling?

To be curt, very. There is no doubt the mixing pot of China-Australia geo-political issues has – slowly but surely – now come to a rolling boil. Allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society continue to emerge, with the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping holding the strong belief that Australia is attempting to undermine their dominance. Through China’s attacks on Australian nationals – within both Australia and China – it is difficult to not draw a parallel between their actions and their attempt to take coercive control of the Australian Government.

Source: Unsplash, 2020.

Has the damage already been done?

The Australian Government was accused of “hurting China’s feelings” after Foreign Minister Marise Payne requested for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Citing this move as “political motivation”, China has retaliated in many ways; attacking Australia’s barley, beef, and wine industries through the launch of numerous investigations into subsidies and anti-dumping, and imposing trade sanctions. After the Australian Government banned Huawei from contributing to Australia’s 5G network, they abruptly ended their lucrative sponsorship deal with the Canberra Raiders NRL team, citing Australia as a “negative business environment”. 

Through the introduction of Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020, the Australian Government seeks to gain the control to cancel any international arrangements that may “go against Australia’s foreign policy”. This could see Australia and China’s relationship worsen, given passing the legislation could see schemes – such as Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative agreement – be cancelled, with the possibility of legal action occurring in the High Court should these demands not be met.

Source: Unsplash, 2020.

Continuing “neo-colonialism”

Australia is left in a difficult situation with regard to China’s influence in our domestic sphere. The deteriorating connection between the two countries is akin to a “frenemy” relationship; where our one trump card lies in our iron ore exports. China, consuming 69.1% of all global iron ore production, knows all too well of the role that Australia plays in powering its economy. In the same breath, there are inherent dangers of becoming too economically dependent on Chinese trade, particularly when the relationship is not formed on the foundations of shared democratic principles. As China pivots towards stricter illiberal values, Australia must be on high alert. Labelling themselves as “wolf warriors”, China has of late, adopted a more aggressive branding of foreign policy, where they aren’t afraid to flex their sharp teeth to fight back against anti-Chinese Communist Party sentiment on social media.

Noticing the cracks in Australia’s diplomatic relationship with China, it is evident that Australia has failed to nurture its relationship with its allies; namely the United Kingdom, United States, and European Union, during this time. Although these most recent developments have uncovered some uncomfortable truths, it is one thing to notice them, but another to act upon them.

The long road ahead

There is no doubt that the relationship between China and Australia will continue to be, rocky, (at best), for the immediate future. If there’s one thing Australia must do, it is to not give in to China’s coercive power or their attempts at Indo-Pacific dominance. Through our support to Hong Kongers and neighbouring allies in the South China Sea, and concern over human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, it is clear that Australia’s foreign policy objectives are attempting to push back against this ruling power. Although Australia needs foreign investment and trade to thrive, we need not to be economically blackmailed by China, or distracted by their cunning, wolf-like ways.

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