Following the first official meeting between the leaders of the two nations since 2016, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping signalled on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali that they both hoped to put years of differences behind them. Once more, there seems to be goodwill between Australia and China and likely resumption of economic ties. But doing so won’t miraculously put an end to the two government’s significant disagreements or usher in a new age of harmony and collaboration.
After a six-year hiatus, the summit meeting was held against the backdrop of China’s aggressive military claims in the South China Sea, expanding footprints in the Indo-Pacific, and drive to encroach on South Pacific island nations. This meeting was also crucial in light of Canberra’s balancing strategies including Australia’s joining of the resurgent Quad, signing of the AUKUS, its expanding strategic partnership with India, and foreign minister Penny Wong’s considerable diplomatic efforts to engage the Pacific countries. The disagreements over trade and Taiwan, human rights, Chinese military ships following Australian warships, and China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, are all causes for concern.
While meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was firm in putting Australia’s national interest first. This meeting to rekindle trade ties between the two nations, won’t alter Australia’s hardline approach to China and will remain a key component of Canberra’s strategic vision. Before he met with the Chinese leader, Anthony Albanese met with President Joe Biden to discuss the red lines— the areas in which neither of the two countries were willing to yield any ground in talks with China. Anthony Albanese decided to steer clear of such rhetoric, saying, “I used my own language rather than anybody else’s. We need to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must but will act in dialogue in our national interests.” On the first full day of the G20 Summit in Bali, Albanese also met with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India, Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom, and President Emmanuel Macron of France.
In a brief conversation, Albanese stated a very sound conclusion. The summit talk focused on commerce, consular, and human rights concerns, and both leaders noted how complementing their economies were. Albanese brought up the subject of Chinese tariffs and bans on Australian exports in 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, he cautioned against expecting instant consequences. For almost more than two decades, both Australia and China gained economically from their connection. With close to a third of its yearly exports of over A$475 billion ($303 billion), China is Australia’s largest trading partner. Both nations have benefited from being able to avoid taking opposing sides on many issues. But, Australia’s demand for an impartial investigation into the origin of Covid-19 emanating from the Chinese city of Wuhan , interrupted that run. In response, China imposed tariffs on Australian goods worth $20 billion resulting in deteriorating Australia-China ties. However, Australia’s fundamental problem- how to mend its relations with China- remains.
Since the Albanese government came to office, the high-level meetings between Australia and China have resumed. Though cautiously, both countries are welcoming the return of more regular high-level interactions, as shown by the meetings between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong twice in a span of 12 weeks in New York and the resurgence of the term comprehensive strategic partnership; to describe Australia- China ties, and the Albanese government’s revision of its stance towards China and eschewing confrontational language in favour of prudence.
However, Australia, not ready for China entering the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, has chosen a multi-pronged approach to conclude free trade agreements with a number of countries and work towards a resilient global supply to reduce reliance on China. This is clearly evidenced by Australian Prime Minister’s meetings with the leaders of other significant trading partners such as Europe, the US, and South-East Asian nations, and more noticeably with India with which its relationship got a special boost. Amidst the problems with China, Australia’s relations with India have been strengthening at an unexpectedly rapid pace.
A soon to be ratified Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the United Kingdom, the proposed Closer Economic Trade Agreement to be concluded during the Australian Prime Minister’s India visit in March 2023, and a number of bilateral discussions between Australian and European leaders at the G20 summit to speed up the conclusion of the free trade agreement with the European nations are noticeable steps.
Australia hardline strategic posture on China continues. This is clear in the recent statements of Australia’s top ministers as when Albanese said that managing strategic rivalry with a forward-leaning China is one of the biggest challenges; Richard Marles, the defence minister, referred to China as Australia’s biggest security anxiety; and Penny Wong emphasized that the change in Canberra’s government has not altered Australia’s national interests and sovereign choices.
Australia’s historical, traditional, and closest security alliance with the US; its commitments to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (US, India, Japan and Australia) and the AUKUS Security Pact (Australia, UK and US) are key tenets of Canberra’s strategy to deal with Beijing’s aggression. In the coming year, Australia’s decision to move from interoperability to interchangeability of Australian and the US defence forces, the forthcoming Quad summit to be hosted by Australia, its initial nuclear submarine delivery announcements, impending defence strategic review, and Australia-US Ministerial Consultations are significant moves.
China’s aggressive posture for the mastery of the Indo-Pacific has exposed its geopolitical intent and damaged its reputation. It will be challenging to repair this predicament, even at the economic level. China’s ascent has repeatedly put Australian policymakers to the test. But, shaped by a deep-seated dread of China’s aggression, Australia’s strategic vision will continue to be bolstered by fundamentally hardline tenets of Australia’s China policy.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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