Australia's relationship with China can survive – but it won't be the same again
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Australia's relationship with China can survive – but it won't be the same again

There can be no return to the relations of the past. The question for 2021 is how to find a new settling point. Originally published in The Guardian.

Australians have had a rude awakening this year. Convinced for a decade that the Asian century was theirs for the taking, the downward spiral of Australia’s relationship with China has come as a shock to many.

The highlights, or more like lowlights, of 2020 are innumerable. Australian citizens Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei have been imprisoned in China, with little to no information about their charges. Australian journalists were spirited out of the country in dramatic scenes. Exports from meat to barley, wine to coal, are just some of the Australian industries reeling from a barrage of Chinese restrictions.

It would be easy to dismiss the China story at this point as some version of Groundhog Day. Every news cycle brings a new and not entirely unexpected blow. But this overlooks the real human consequences of this dispute.

The likelihood of the detained Yang and Cheng coming home seems more remote by the day. Farmers caught up in the bilateral crossfire seek answers – and new markets. Foreign workers have been stranded at sea for months, denied entry by Chinese authorities because their ships carry Australian coal.

Becoming desensitised to these human costs also risks forgetting the plight of many people inside China. Recent reports revealed even more chilling detail on the forced labour practices in Xinjiang, where a million Uyghurs have been interned.

It’s worth remembering that this month also brought a rare win in the bilateral relationship – an Australian-Uyghur child was allowed to leave China and reunite with his father in Australia after three years of advocacy. Another reason to not look away.

Otherwise, China’s pressure on Australia has been relentless. And many in China support bringing the pain. Wolf warrior diplomacy, a term used to refer to aggressive Chinese diplomats, seems to have inspired Chinese netizens.

Chinese nationalists appeared to relish the fallout when Zhao Lijian tweeted a digitally-altered 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.

Vitriol fills the comments section of any Australian embassy in Beijing post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. It turns out the advice to never read the comments applies in any language.

As much as Chinese netizens feel wronged, so too is Australian outrage towards China palpable. Morrison’s ire was well-received by many Australians; the majority supported his call for an apology. Six in 10 say that Australia is an innocent victim of China’s trade restrictions. The 2020 Lowy Institute poll showed trust in China at a historic low, and almost all Australians support diversification of trade away from 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.

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.

Although Australia’s relationship with China started to sour in mid-2017, most agree that Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 was a turning point for China.

We will never know if Australia would have been spared the economic pain of recent months if that announcement had not been made. Or if Australia had been flanked by other countries. Or had omitted the weapons inspectors analogy.

But that ship has sailed. And there are many reasons to believe that China’s plans to limit Australian exports were already in the pipeline. 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.

China’s targeting of Australia is in part aimed at deterring others from following in its footsteps. The plight of Australian exports sends a powerful signal to other industries and other countries: cross Beijing at your peril.

This limits what Australia can actually do, moving forward. Hardening public opinion in Australia will constrain policy choices. Calls for boycotts of Chinese products could grow. Australians may rally against Beijing’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in 2022.

Canberra may face more pressure to regulate or even ban Chinese social media apps, after WeChat censored a Morrison post. With the rude awakening has come growing awareness in the Australian public about the Chinese Communist party and its goals.

At best, both sides can hope to put a floor on the downward spiral. Australian exports into China are on track for a record year, though that’s cold comfort for targeted industries. Chinese consumers are to date largely unmoved by Beijing’s pronouncements, and remain enthusiastic for Australian products. Chinese citizens still rate Australia very highly as a place to study and travel.

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

• Natasha Kassam is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute

Areas of expertise: China’s domestic politics; public opinion polling; human rights; Australian foreign policy; Taiwan; Indo-Pacific strategy