Thu, Jun 07, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Australia and China’s fraying ties

By Sushil Seth

Beijing is slowly putting the squeeze on Australia for its acts of omission and commission in its relations with China.

Now that China acts as the superpower in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia is finding it very hard to balance, if it were ever possible, its relations between the US, its major security partner, and China, its biggest trading partner.

It is all the more difficult when the US regards China as its strategic competitor and Australia is on the US side, even though Canberra is still trying to figure out where the US is headed with US President Donald Trump at the helm, but that is a different story.

The fact remains that the US is not happy with China’s policy of claiming sovereignty over South China Sea island groups, and by extension, making the waters around them its own lake.

China has dredged up sand dunes and turned these and other islets into military facilities, lately stationing anti-ship and anti-air missiles and bombers. Some of these bombers might bring Australia’s northern region within their range.

Australia and the US are unhappy at the militarization of the South China islands, on top of China overriding competitive sovereignty claims of other regional countries. They contend that China is not following international law in these matters, which is leading to tensions in the region.

China lays claim to these and other islands on historical grounds that are difficult to substantiate. There is so much contested stuff in these waters to make them a flashing point — although the regional claimants seem to be adjusting, however unwillingly, to China’s growing economic and military power.

Australia has continued to uphold the primacy of its strategic alliance with the US, despite its increasingly primary economic relationship with China, hoping that it might strike some sort of a balance between the two, which is proving increasingly difficult to sustain.

There has also been a lot of reporting in the media lately suggesting that China’s and/or the Chinese Communist Party’s aligned interests here might be seeking to subvert Australian institutions through political donations, pouring money into universities, buying into strategic infrastructure and the like.

A Chinese-Australian billionaire, who has been doling out money to political parties and university centers, was named in the Australian parliament, under parliamentary privilege, as a coconspirator in a bribery scandal at the UN.

There have been reports of some rich Chinese-Australians mobilizing people of Chinese heritage in Australia and other sympathetic political and cultural groups.

An Labor Party senator had to resign when it was found out that an Australian-Chinese billionaire was funding some of his expenses and for espousing China’s position on its sovereignty over South China Sea islands, at variance with his party’s and the government’s critical position.

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Duncan Lewis has reportedly said that Australia is facing a greater threat from espionage today — without naming China — than at any time since the Cold War.

To deal with it, the government is considering passing legislation to curb or outlaw such activities that are designed to take advantage of Australia’s free and democratic system.

China is unhappy, indeed angry, with the way that Canberra, it believes, is focusing on its role. So much so that it put a virtual freeze on Australian ministerial visits to China. The one recent trip by an Australian minister was to watch a China-Australia sporting event.

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