Wed, Jul 29, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Sino-Australian relations in crisis

By Sushil Seth

The arrests have become highly charged in Australia’s domestic politics, with the opposition taunting Rudd to pick up the phone and talk directly with the top man in China, obviously referring to President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) or Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).

The implication is that Rudd made much politically of his magic touch with China, and now is the time to deliver.

However, Beijing has virtually told Canberra that it should forget about Stern Hu and his colleagues, who have already been branded guilty, with Chinese bloggers calling them traitors.

There are two schools of thought on the question of dealing with China. Those sympathetic to Beijing would like Canberra to cave in, not only because China is a regional giant but also because commodity exports are increasingly the bread and butter of Australia’s economic lifeline.

This school includes a good number of Australian Sinologists, as well as some strategic analysts.

The second school, reflected in government policy on the issue so far, acknowledges the growing importance of China’s economic connection but argues, as did Rudd in a recent statement, that the importance of Sino-Australian economic relations cuts both ways, because China needs the resources that Australia has to offer.

If Canberra were to make a humiliating backdown on the iron ore issue (ignoring the arrest of Stern Hu and his colleagues), it would mean that its economic policy toward China would be increasingly dictated by Beijing. In a larger sense, Australia would become part of China’s regional sphere of influence, undercutting its US alliance and much more.

As Australian columnist Paul Kelly has written: “Australia’s greatest strategic challenge: how to manage a successful relationship with China as a repressive state that rejects our values, legal system, governance and US alliance.”

In addition to the Rio Tinto problems, China is unhappy with Rudd’s Australia for a variety of other reasons, including its softness toward the Dalai Lama.

This annoyance must have turned into anger after a bipartisan parliamentary delegation recently made an unofficial visit to the Dalai Lama in his Dharamsala headquarters in India.

To complicate things further, the Melbourne International Film Festival is screening a documentary about Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur leader in exile in the US. Beijing calls her a terrorist and blames her for recent unrest in Xinjiang.

A Chinese consular official reportedly called the director of the film festival, demanding that the documentary be dropped. Kadeer is coming to Australia for the premier of her documentary and has plans to canvass her people’s cause with the Australian government.

Chinese directors have withdrawn some films that were to screen in the festival, and Chinese hackers have been at work to damage the Web site of the Melbourne festival.

At a strategic level, the new Australian defense White Paper has apparently angered Beijing even more by suggesting that a rising China could threaten Australia’s security when it overtakes the US as the world’s largest economy, as it is predicted to do around 2020.

“By 2030, any changes in economic power will affect the distribution of strategic power,” it said.

It would seem that Sino-Australian relations are in for a rough ride for quite some time. How it will be resolved is anybody’s guess.

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