Sat, Oct 05, 2019 - Page 8 News List

China-Australia relations strained

By Sushil Seth

When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the Australian credentials of the first ethnic Chinese person elected to Australia’s parliament as a ruling party member, he apparently won appreciation in some quarters in China.

The member of parliament (MP) in question had come under question in the parliament, largely from the opposition Labor Party, which wanted her to explain why she had not declared, as required, her membership in some of the front organizations of the Chinese Communist Party.

In defense of his party’s MP, Morrison attacked the implied racism in this inquiry, which questioned the patriotism of 1.2 million Australians of Chinese descent.

It is easy to see why it would have been well received in the relevant quarters in China, after all the scandals in the media of foreign (mainly Chinese) interference in Australia.

However, any positive impact from this in Australia’s tense relationship with China was negated by Morrison’s statement — made during his US visit — that was supportive of the US position in the ongoing US-China trade dispute.

Morrison reportedly said that China was no longer a developing country and hence not entitled to special treatment, like preferential tariff and related concessions.

He seemingly supported US President Donald Trump’s position that only a “sustainable outcome” was worth signing between the US and China. Morrison said: “It’s got to be a durable outcome; it’s going to deal with the real issues that are there in their relationship [apparently the entire gamut of it].”

He added: “And I’m quite confident that’s what President [Trump] is seeking to achieve.”

He also reportedly said that Australia would push for strict rules to protect intellectual property, technology transfer or how foreign investment operates.

These are precisely the issues that the US is pushing for in a new trade deal with China. As Trump reportedly said, “The second-largest economy in the world should not be permitted to declare itself ‘a developing country’ in order to game the system at others’ expense.”

Not surprisingly, Beijing is not happy, to put it mildly. This sentiment is best captured in East China University Australia Studies Director Chen Hong’s (陳弘) statement that Australia had played a “pioneering role in an anti-China campaign.”

He added that Australia-China relations had entered a freeze “which in Chinese means a very cold period.”

The question is: Who should take the initiative to unfreeze the relationship?

From China’s viewpoint, it is Australia that started it all with media reports over increasing Chinese interference in Australian political affairs and the follow up legislation to deal with it.

With Australia’s ban on Huawei from participating in Australia’s 5G network for reasons of national security, the relationship became even more tense.

Now, with Morrison questioning the ‘developing nation’ characterization of China with preferential treatment in trade terms, Beijing apparently is not taking it kindly.

Against this backdrop, China might think that Australia would need to do some soul-searching and take the initiative to mend the relationship.

As Chen said, “I think the responsibility [to unfreeze] is totally on the Australian side. China always promotes friendship.”

One way, of course, would be to invite Morrison to visit China to discuss the state of relations between the two countries.

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