Ties between Australia and China have improved faster than many expected since Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took power last year. Beijing’s reaction to Canberra’s plans for a new submarine might show whether the goodwill can last.
Albanese is expected to travel to Washington in the middle of next month to unveil the design for a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to be built with the help of the US and the UK. The joint announcement with US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would represent a key milestone in the 18-month-old AUKUS partnership intended to counter growing Chinese naval might in the Asia-Pacific region.
The reset with Beijing has Canberra once again navigating the rivalry between the US — Australia’s most powerful ally — and China — its biggest trading partner. That is only getting more difficult, as demonstrated by the recent breakdown between Beijing and Washington.
Although Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao (王文濤) this month told his Australian counterpart that the “freeze is over,” the chill could quickly return.
“There’s a willingness on China’s side to talk to Australia in ways they haven’t for four or five years,” said Richard McGregor, author of Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century.
While the improvement in relations between Canberra and Beijing has been significant, “I think it has its limits,” said McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.
Canberra’s ties with Beijing unraveled in early 2020 after then-Australian prime minister Scott Morrison called for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which China viewed as part of a US-led effort to blame it for the virus. Beijing undertook a series of punitive trade actions on Australian products including barley, coal and wine, although it denied that the moves were retaliatory.
Australia’s recent thaw with China has similarly coincided with a broader push by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to ease tensions with the West as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and he focuses on rebuilding the economy.
However, Jiang Yun (姜雲), China Matters Fellow at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, said that repairing ties between Canberra and Beijing would be difficult “in the current geostrategic environment,” even though both parties appeared to want it.
Few issues underscore the suspicions between the two sides as much as AUKUS, which would give China several more stealthy submarines to worry about in any potential conflict over Taiwan.
China has made clear its opposition to the three-way pact, attempting to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency that the transfer of nuclear-propulsion technology represents a breach of non-proliferation treaties.
“AUKUS is essentially about fueling military confrontation through military collaboration,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Mao Ning (毛寧) told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Feb. 1.
The potential for disputes extends to trade, despite China’s vast need for Australian natural resources such as coal and iron ore.
Beijing wants Australia to relax foreign-investment restrictions, and Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian (肖千) last month mentioned lithium — highly sought for its use in high-tech manufacturing — as one area of possible cooperation.
However, the Albanese government cannot afford to stray from the hard line taken by its conservative predecessors amid widespread voter unease about China.
Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers has called for greater scrutiny of foreign investment in critical minerals, while Australian Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Birmingham said that while it was important for Canberra to welcome overseas investment, the “national interest” must be protected.
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