Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Australia-China relations off the rails? Not so fast

Australia-China relations off the rails? Not so fast

Former Australian ambassador to China Dr Stephen FitzGerald threw brickbats at the Abbott Government this week.

In a guest post on John Menadue's blog, Fitzgerald took aim at the government for endangering Australia-China relations. He dates his criticism back to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's summoning of the Chinese ambassador to Australia in late November last year over the establishment of China's Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). The move caused a diplomatic ruckus in China. China's foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang called Bishop's statements on the ADIZ 'irresponsible...China cannot accept them.' He called on Australia to 'immediately correct its mistake, so as to avoid damaging China-Australia relations.'

'This is serious', FitzGerald warns us.

And, in a way, it is. Xenophobic nationalism in China has rarely been stronger in recent memory. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rectification campaign is reaching a high point. The government is pursuing a fiercely anti-Western ideological agenda, and any statements from Western leaders deemed affronting to China are seized upon.

In establishing its ADIZ, China deliberately sought to tread on Japanese toes. It knew that covering Japanese toes was an American boot. What it didn’t know before Bishop stood up was that Australia apparently wants to be the sock.

But it's worth pausing here for a moment. 'In the history of our diplomatic relations, apart from the Tiananmen massacre we've not had such a stand-off', FitzGerald writes.

That's debatable. [fold]

The present stare-off is serious, but there have been plenty of other 'serious' episodes before and since Tiananmen. In fact, Australian prime ministers in recent memory seem to have an uncanny ability to provoke Chinese ire before settling down into productive relations.

Most count China among one of John Howard's strengths, but it didn't always look like it would be that way. He managed to offend China within a year of taking office by meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1996. A couple of months later he set about building a productive relationship with Jiang Zemin.

The China challenge is far more daunting today than it was under Howard. Separating politics and economics in the relationship isn't as easy as it was a decade ago.

Still, Julia Gillard managed to follow Howard in affronting China first and engaging China second. In acquiescing to US desires for a Marine presence in Darwin, Gillard set off a storm of criticism in Beijing. 'Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached no matter what Australia does to undermine its security', the state-run People's Daily said in an editorial at the time. In The Age, John Garnaut quoted Song Xiaojun, a former People's Liberation Army strategist as saying, 'They are two losers holding on to each other and making a show...Chinese strategic missiles can reach Australia.'

Gillard, too, came good on China. In foreign policy, she will be remembered for securing a regular high-level strategic dialogue with China in April 2013.

Kevin Rudd did things the other way around. He was initially welcomed in China as an Asia-literate Sinophile. The goodwill was lost, however, with the release of Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper, which contained tough strategic assessments on China's rising power.

Rudd's reputation in China hit rock-bottom as a result of WikiLeaks. In one leaked cable, Rudd warned Hillary Clinton to be prepared to 'use force' against China 'if everything goes wrong.' He told Mrs Clinton on another occasion that 'China is paranoid about Taiwan and Tibet.'

If Chinese officials were relatively muted on Rudd's WikiLeaks revelations, the Chinese public hung him out to dry. Many felt they had been hoodwinked into believing Rudd was a friend to China because he spoke Mandarin.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is yet to be quite so thoroughly derided in China, and his government's early mistakes have precedents, some of which were arguably more serious.

Abbott this year needs to make sure China forgets about his government's comments on the ADIZ. The focus should be on finally realising an Australia-China FTA and opening the doors wider to Chinese investment. The late December approval of China State Grid's bid to buy large stakes in Australian power companies is a positive sign.

Photo courtesy of the Australian Foreign Minister.

You may also be interested in