Fri, Jun 25, 2004 - Page 8 News List

China gets serious about Australia

By Sushil Seth

Even though Australia remains a staunch US ally, a section of its political and intellectual establishment is keen on closer ties with China. And they are keen to promote them.

The appointment of a new Chinese ambassador to Canberra provides one such example. Paul Sheehan, a columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald, gave her top billing describing her as a "diplomatic heavy hitter," having been the director-general of the department of Asian affairs in China's foreign office. And he quoted her approvingly on the state and potential of Australia-China relations.

According to Fu Ying (傅瑩), the new ambassador, "Our [China-Australia] relations are in excellent shape. There is so much potential. There are no fundamental differences between us."

Elaborating, she said, "China has a comfortable feeling about Australia. Very friendly. There is no serious scar in our history. Australia can help China to understand the world better, and help the world understand China."

Talking about economic ties, she held out the prospect of a preferential trade pact between the two countries, describing their general economic structures as "complimentary." Highlighting the vastness of China's market, she said, "Most of the things China needs now can be found here [in Australia]. And Chinese companies are also ready to invest overseas. Many of them are coming here to look for opportunities."

But there is a caveat. As the ambassador put it, "I think it depends on how much Australia is ready to expand your production [of minerals China needs] to avail yourself of this opportunity ... Will you be ready to have more joint ventures with China?"

And to emphasize her point, she said, "Australians need to think hard. And China also needs to think hard. Because depending on Australia for key materials means becoming dependent on you to some extent."

The excerpts above help us to understand China's view of Australia in its scheme of things. A few points stand out.

First, Beijing is keen to enlist Canberra's help as a sympathetic interpreter with Washington by virtue of its alliance with US. However, this has its limitations. Canberra's special relationship with the US is by virtue of its being a loyal ally. That means substantial political and strategic convergence between the two countries. In other words, Australia must, by and large, follow the US lead on important matters like the state of the Sino-US relationship. For instance, Australia will find it very difficult to be neutral on Taiwan in the event of US involvement to defend the nation.

Indeed, as part of the US' new global strategic vision of creating more agile and flexible defense force structures, Australia is being assigned an even more important role. Editorializing on this, the Sydney Morning Herald said, "The proposal for joint training facilities in northern Australia, which could bring thousands of American troops to train at upgraded bases in the Northern Territory and far north Queensland, is part of this new strategic vision. It has been welcomed by the Australian Government."

At another level, Australia is also committing to the US missile defense program, making available its bases, facilities and technology for early warning systems. Not only that, it seems willing to deploy ballistic missile interceptors near its capital cities. As one commentator has pointed out, "It was the first time an Australian [defense] minister had canvassed the option of missile defenses for Australian cities."

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