By Justin Bassi
July 26, 2022
Australia is now seeing the reality of its bilateral relationship with China: one with tension, in which engagement occurs but is not the goal in itself, and where Australia doesn’t concede sovereignty for economic gain.
The resumption of communication between defence and foreign ministers, and others, is in Australia’s interest because it allows for cooperation while retaining focus on irritants and concerns.
Most importantly, dialogue has recommenced on an unconditional basis, meaning Australia hasn’t compromised on any of its foreign policy, national security and defence settings. That is, the first shift has been made by China, dropping its requirement that Australia change before engaging at the ministerial level—a positive outcome for the new government and our nation.
In re-establishing dialogue without preconditions, the government has reinforced Australia’s strategic policy settings. The prime minister, defence minister and foreign minister have made it clear that Australia’s rhetoric will be carefully calibrated while policies on matters such as 5G, laws such as the counter-foreign-interference legislation, and groupings including AUKUS and Quad will not only be retained but remain core to Australia’s national security posture.
The principle was set out by Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who said Australia will continue to make decisions ‘on the basis of our national interest, our security and our sovereignty’. It was reinforced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who responded to a new set of four conditions from China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi by saying: ‘Australia doesn’t respond to demands.’
Resuming dialogue without compromising any policy settings means the Australian government has gained the upper hand diplomatically.
Calibrating language doesn’t mean silence. The government has continued to appropriately identify malicious actions, security threats and human rights abuses. Consider Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles’s frank assessment at the opening of ASPI’s office in Washington DC this month: ‘This is the most dangerous period I’ve lived through—we are witnessing the biggest military build-up since the Second World War … That’s what keeps me awake at night.’
The strategic continuity is clear. It shows that the difficult decisions taken in recent years were important to ensure that future governments didn’t have to make even harder and more disruptive decisions.
Bigger tests lie ahead. For example, China desperately wants to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and some in Australia are already proposing that the Australian government should compromise in this area. That would be a critical mistake, because it would reinforce China’s practice of economic coercion, a malign tactic used against Australia and many of our partners, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
The CPTPP shouldn’t be a compromise to attract more positive rhetoric, or be used by Canberra as a reciprocal concession for Beijing lifting its unfair trade measures; the free trade deal should be open only to countries that meet its strict standards. Meeting and upholding those standards should be required of China, just as for every other applicant, including Taiwan.
A high bar should be set for the accession of the UK, which applied before China. There would also be benefits for Beijing, since trading partners would have increased trust that China had fairly gained access. If we and the other 11 CPTPP countries allow China to join unconditionally, that would only encourage the Chinese Communist Party to continue its coercion.
As Wong has said, Australia should continue to identify ways of ‘stabilising’ the bilateral relationship. This can and should occur without Australia ignoring the impact of China’s international behaviour. Australia has appreciated international support during our period facing coercion and, even in a more stable relationship, we should continue supporting states, such as Lithuania, that face coercion merely for making sovereign decisions.
There could be an early test, given there are signs that Beijing could lift its ban on Australian coal—a key plank in the CCP’s economic coercion campaign. That would be positive for Australian coal exports, but shouldn’t be viewed as a CCP concession that requires a reciprocal concession from us—there should be no reward for beginning to do what is right. If the coal ban ends, it will be driven by Beijing’s self-interest—alleviating supply issues resulting from Russia’s war.
We must also recognise that Beijing continues to strengthen its coercive hand in other ways. For instance, Chinese state media has announced that the new China Mineral Resources Group will help coordination in the steel industry, seemingly with an eye to controlling the price of iron ore, Australia’s most valuable export to China.
That’s why, even as relations ‘stabilise’ and opportunities for cooperation are rightly identified, sunlight should continue to be poured on intimidatory behaviour. Transparency remains a key element in countering coercion, whether it is economic pressure or arbitrary detention. As ministerial re-engagement and trade improve, we must continue fighting for the release of detained Australians including Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei.
The new Australian government has shown it can both talk and act in the national interest. All sectors should support these active principles in the name of Australian sovereignty.