Difficult times for Australia-China

By Sushil Seth  / 

Fri, Sep 13, 2019 - Page 8

Australian media have been highlighting strains in the relationship between Canberra and Beijing due to distrust on both sides.

From China’s viewpoint, Australia tends to see things through a revived Cold War lens where Beijing is not playing by established international rules.

In the process, Beijing is seen as destabilizing an international system, which has worked well to everybody’s advantage, including China’s.

For instance, China has made tremendous economic progress under a well-established international trading regime.

Although Canberra does not squarely blame Beijing for the US-China trade dispute, it has called upon both parties to sort out their differences by diplomatic means. In other words, the US has a case and it needs to be resolved.

However, in terms of Beijing’s expanding role in the South China Sea, Canberra is in tune with Washington on the need to keep open the international waterway without encroachment by China.

Moreover, in Australia’s own strategic backyard of small Pacific states, as well as other parts of the world, China is making headway through infrastructure projects through the Belt and Road Initiative, some of which might become military bases.

Although it is not said loudly, it sometimes looks like that China is expanding its naval reach way beyond South China Sea — proclaiming its own Monroe Doctrine like the US did a long time ago for the Western Hemisphere.

If so, where would Australia fit in?

Obviously, Australia does not want to become part of China’s regional sphere. It has a long-standing strategic relationship with the US, which was designed precisely as a security shield in the Indo-Pacific region where Australians did not feel comfortable as a largely European society.

China was always a danger of sorts, first, as a potentially endless source of immigrants, which led to the “white Australia” policy.

In the past few decades, more so under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) leadership, Beijing appears to be a security threat with its expanding economic, political and military reach.

In economic terms, China is now Australia’s largest trading partner, which makes Canberra vulnerable to its economic pressure. It is already happening and Beijing is not terribly subtle about it, as it tends to put obstacles, now and then, in the clearance of some export items. It is not full on obstruction, but a signal of sorts that it is not happy.

It recently turned into a tense diplomatic exchange following the arrest of China-born Australian citizen Yang Hengjun (楊恆均) over spying charges.

If convicted, Yang might face severe penalties, including a very long jail sentence.

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said that she was “very concerned and disappointed” at the news of arrest, adding: “There is no basis for any allegation Dr Yang was spying for the Australian government.”

What probably irked Beijing more was Payne’s statement that Yang had been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months.

“Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits,” Payne said.

She said that she had twice discussed Yang’s detention with Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi (王毅) and had written to him three times, outlining the Australian government’s concerns for his welfare.

“It is important, and we expect, that basic standards of justice and procedural fairness are met,” Payne said.

“I respectfully reiterate my previous requests that if Dr Yang is being held for his political beliefs [advocacy of democracy], he should be released,” she said.

Beijing’s response to this was sharp and swift, with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) saying: “China deplores the Australian foreign minister’s statement on this case.”

“Australia should respect China’s sovereignty and stop interfering in China’s case handling,” Geng said, adding that China was a country with the rule of law.

The relationship has further been complicated by a host of side issues, which might not officially involve China, but nonetheless seek to interfere with Australia’s politics.

For instance, the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo (黃向墨), who allegedly delivered A$100,000 (US$68,100) in cash as political donation to the opposition Labor Party.

This has, of course, thrown the Labor Party into chaos.

The billionaire had earlier attracted the attention of Australian security agencies, which revoked his Australian residency and banned him from entering Australia.

There are also concerns in the education sector, prompting Australian Minister for Education Dan Tehan to announce a new foreign interference task force to tackle concerns about undue influence, cybersecurity and sensitive research collaborations.

The guidelines to be developed by the taskforce would mean the “sector can benchmark themselves” in cooperation with security and intelligence agencies, Tehan said.

It is hoped that the guidelines would be in place by November.

With China keen to put Australia into line with its hegemonic ambitions, and Canberra resisting and seeking to maintain its position as the US’ primary strategic partner, one can foresee difficult times ahead.

Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.