This weekend marks the start of Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese‘s state visit to China, which will highlight a significant improvement in ties between the two nations that had rapidly deteriorated in recent years due to issues ranging from trade to security.
Politicians in the country have long been uneasy about China’s aggressive foreign policy and its military’s rapid modernization. The turning point moment came in 2017 when Australian officials prohibited foreign funding of political parties, citing “disturbing reports” of Chinese efforts to influence the political system in Canberra.
Australia was the first nation to forbid the Chinese tech giant Huawei from using its 5G network. It allegedly went on to stop ten Chinese investment agreements in the fields of agriculture, animal husbandry, and infrastructure. When it demanded an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus, which was initially discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan, relations deteriorated even more. Australian criticism of Beijing’s policies in Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea has also enraged Beijing.
Its membership in the Quad, an informal alliance made up of the US, India, and Japan, has also been a source of disagreement. Beijing has referred to the alliance as an effort by the US to establish an “Asian version of NATO.”
Australia was promptly placed in diplomatic cold storage. Ministerial exchanges were postponed, high-level visits were halted, and state media were attacked. China is not only Australia’s largest trading partner but also a significant player in nearly every aspect of Australian foreign policy, so the decline in bilateral relations appeared to have enormous implications for Australia’s national interests.
Furthermore, with 1.2 million Australians claiming Chinese heritage, the language and culture of China play a significant role in Australia’s multicultural society. Although Beijing’s anger impacted ministerial and official contacts, there was no noticeable impact on two-way trade during that time, as Australian exports to China increased by 26%.
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Is Australia trying to reconnect with China?
Beijing was enforcing tariffs and sanctions on Australian goods and detaining Australian citizens as relations reached a 50-year low. Meanwhile, officials in Canberra demanded inquiries into Chinese political influence and the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recent reconciliation, motivated by business fatigue with trade tensions and a desire to steer away from his predecessor’s aggressive stance, ends with the Labor prime minister’s state visit. But even as his administration forges stronger security ties with the US to counter Beijing’s influence in the region, Albanese must continue to mend fences with the country’s biggest trading partner.
Following a trip to Washington last month, Prime Minister Albanese is making his first trip to China since Malcolm Turnbull in 2016. Speaking to senior US officials, Albanese emphasized his government’s “patient, calibrated, and deliberate” approach and said Australia should be “clear-eyed” about its relationship with China.
It will be his responsibility to hold that equilibrium even as the Biden administration keeps upping the pressure on China by enforcing export restrictions on semiconductor equipment of the future and fortifying security cooperation in Asia with alliances like Aukus, which aims to provide Canberra access to nuclear-powered submarines.
Since Albanese’s election in May 2022, his administration has adopted a more measured approach and stance against aggressive actions while refraining from harsh language, acknowledging it’s continued reliance on China for more than one-fourth of its export revenue. Few observers anticipate that the visit will result in significant bilateral developments, but pledges to boost trade and make announcements about cooperation in fields like climate change and green energy are possible.
What does this reconnection mean to the USA?
China’s desire to avoid upsetting America’s allies makes sense given the current state of tensions with the US. Washington is pressuring its allies to follow suit in addition to attempting to deny China access to the technology required for cutting-edge computer chips and essential minerals required for renewable energy.
Australia, for instance, contains half of the world’s lithium reserves. Chinese companies seek access to these metals, which are essential for the production of electric vehicles—China is currently the world leader in this field.
Australia and China run the risk of turning into “competitors rather than collaborators” when it comes to matters on which they should cooperate, like combating climate change. Australia will unavoidably support the US in the struggle of superpowers due to its strong military and political ties to the US.
However, supporting a nation whose economic policies intentionally hurt China will only worsen the situation and run the risk of bringing both nations back to zero.