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Australia and China need a circuit breaker to help break the ice

By David Morris | China Daily | Updated: 2021-09-02 07:13
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People are silhouetted against the Sydney Opera House at sunset in Australia, file photo. [Photo/Agencies]

Following the historic 1971 visit to China by former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, while he was still opposition leader, Australia and China enjoyed mutual benefits from trade, education and people to people links for decades.

Today, after a series of disputes, Australia and China have a relationship without communication, without a goal and without much hope. Each side blames the other for the deterioration in bilateral relations, but such a stance reduces the strategic options for finding a common ground solution. It's natural for the two countries to have different political and strategic outlooks, but a circuit breaker is needed to reset relations.

There are no signs of any moves to improve Australia-China relations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in trade. Ask Australia's lobster exporters, now effectively shut out of the Chinese mainland market. Or Australian exporters of coal, barley, beef, wine and other products now facing trade barriers in the world's biggest import market.

The United States and other exporters are rushing in to fill the gaps left by Australian exporters in China's huge market.

So was it smart to allow bilateral relations to deteriorate to such an extent? In response, it certainly makes sense for Australian exporters to diversify and not rely entirely on the mainland market, but no other country in the region has a middle-income group as big as China's, as hungry for Australia's premium seafood and agricultural products, or as thirsty for Australian wine. In time, Australian workers and businesses are going to need and seek access to the mainland's market.

Even if a government in Canberra in the future plans to re-negotiate the terms of the relationship to meet both countries' needs, it may prove difficult to repair the damage done on both sides. A politically risk-averse opposition, led by Anthony Albanese, does not enjoy the conditions that allowed the trailblazing Whitlam visit to China 50 years ago. That initiative followed years of Whitlam articulating a more independent, interests-based Australian foreign policy to find its way to live with Asia, rather than to fear Asia.

These days, there is little space for such lofty aims, with political initiatives judged within a 24-hour news cycle rather than over the course of months or years.

Whitlam's historic visit to China would not have been nearly as significant, in retrospect had it not been followed soon by then US national security advisor Henry Kissinger, the arch-realist, pursuing US interests in working with, rather than against, China.

After Whitlam was elected Australian prime minister, and even under successive Australian governments, Canberra pursued normal relations with China ahead of the US establishing formal diplomatic relations with China by removing its veto on China at the United Nations and, decades later, welcoming China into the World Trade Organization.

Even after governments changed in Australia, the country pursued Asia-Pacific trade liberalization and pragmatic relations with China. Australian workers and businesses were huge beneficiaries of the trade, investment, tourism and education links with China that flowed from that policy pragmatism.

Sooner or later, an Australian government might seek a new, mutual interest-based bargain with China, carefully negotiated by an updated version of a Whitlam-or Kissinger-style visit. The stakes are very high now, and both countries are much more important to each other than half a century ago.

Australia's economy remains highly complementary to China's and, as China continues to get richer, it is clearly in Australia's economic and security interests to hold a hard-nosed, realist negotiation to find a way for both countries to live with each other, without interference, and to benefit from each other's growth and prosperity.

Australian foreign policy swings between, at times, a traditional, one-eyed geopolitical allegiance to the United States regardless of the issue and, at other times, a more nuanced support for the US' global leadership but within multilateral rules and norms that work for all countries. At times Australia focuses on constructive engagement with Asia, at other times it swings back to its more traditional cultural ties beyond its region.

Australia is likely to remain committed to free trade, openness to foreign investment and multilateral dispute settlement. In the medium term, Australia will likely contribute to developing a new, pragmatic balance in the Asia-Pacific region based on confidence-building security guarantees to stabilize the region, rather than driving it toward conflict.

In the long run, there cannot be only one winner, and that applies to both China and the US no matter how much it disappoints the hawks on all sides. In the Asia-Pacific region, most people realize they are not living in an era of zero-sum games, but in times when they have to learn to live and thrive together. That is possible between Australia and China. We just need to start talking again to find the way forward.

The author is a former Australian and multilateral diplomat. He is Vice Chair of the UNESCAP Sustainable Business Network and Senior Research Fellow at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

If you have a specific expertise, or would like to share your thought about our stories, then send us your writings at opinion@chinadaily.com.cn, and comment@chinadaily.com.cn.

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