China-Australia relations: is Canberra taking a ‘less combative’ stance with Beijing despite tensions?

Australia has seemingly moved towards “less combative” interactions with China, despite ongoing tensions and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his cabinet expressed a desire for a “positive” and productive relationship.

There has been no ministerial-level contact between the two governments for the past year after a fallout that started over calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and spiralled into a broad trade conflict.

But comments made by Morrison on Wednesday, the same day the Chinese embassy in Canberra called a press conference to defend allegations against China’s treatment of Uygurs in its northwestern province, have been viewed by foreign relations experts in Australia as a “more deliberate and careful articulation of views on China” from Canberra.

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“We want to see a positive relationship between the larger countries that are impacting on our region,” Morrison said on Wednesday, adding that Minister for Defence Peter Dutton shared the same view. Dutton, the former home affairs minister who has been tough on migration and has taken aim at China, surprised many last week when he said during a TV interview that he wanted to “work collaboratively” with China to ensure peace in the Indo-Pacific region.

“But again, those relationships can’t be achieved as the product of a less free and a less open Indo-Pacific,” Morrison added. “So, our objectives here are very clear, and we would be keen to work with China to those ends, as we’ve consistently said, and so we’ll continue to work positively to that end and we would welcome discussions that are about those objectives.”

Australia, more than any other OECD country, enjoys a complementary rather than competitive economy with China. This makes us natural economic partners. Political differences should not poison that opportunity
Percy Allan

One Canberra observer said Morrison could be looking to tread a “middle path” with China that diverges somewhat from the interests of its allies, in particular, the United States.

“It certainly looks less combative and more respectful in normalising our relations with China,” said Percy Allan, a visiting professor at the Institute of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney and a former secretary of the New South Wales Treasury.

“Australia, more than any other [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] country, enjoys a complementary rather than competitive economy with China. This makes us natural economic partners. Political differences should not poison that opportunity.”

Morrison’s comments came before the Chinese embassy press conference on Wednesday, an event which attracted a backlash from human rights groups, who called it a “cover up” by the Chinese government.

Australian trade minister Dan Tehan also confirmed on the same day that his January letter to his counterpart, Chinese commerce minister Wang Wentao, when Wang commenced his new role, remained unanswered.

The two countries have been embroiled in a year-long conflict that escalated last April when Australia pushed for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus without consulting Beijing. Since then, China has imposed a range of trade actions against Australian exports including coal, wine and barley.

Tehan, in launching a new report on Wednesday on how to pave the way for better economic ties with China and Asia, also reiterated the Australian government wanted a positive relationship with China and that engagement also meant “agreeing to disagree”.

He maintained the same message in response to comments from China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, who warned that China would “respond in kind” if Canberra joined international sanctions on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses.

Australia’s trade minister told Bloomberg Television on Thursday that sovereignty and national interest were non-negotiable, but added “that doesn’t mean that we can’t have productive relationships. Good friends always are able to have very difficult conversations”.

During the Chinese embassy press conference, ambassador Cheng said people should not be under the illusion “that China would swallow the bitter pill” of others meddling in its internal affairs, nor attempts to mount a “pressure” campaign.

“Those who spread these rumours against China and against Xinjiang, or lies, are futile [sic],” Cheng said.

Two weeks ago, the Chinese embassy also defended its position when the Australian and New Zealand governments supported sanctions by Canada, the European Union, Britain and the US against China, saying the allegations “once again fully expose the deep-seated ideological prejudices and the despicable tactic of smearing China on the Australian side”.

Allan added that the governments of both countries – coming from different political systems – must seek to resolve their differences in inter-government communications before ventilating them publicly. Anything else, particularly a hostile approach, could provoke paranoia, xenophobia and possibly war.

“China is an autocracy, but we should not underestimate the pride of the Chinese people in their country lifting itself out of abject poverty and becoming a superpower. This is the reality we have to deal with,” he said.

On Thursday, signs of goodwill continued as China’s consulate-general in Sydney attended a tree planting ceremony to commemorate the link between the Australian state of New South Wales and the Chinese province of Guangdong.

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