PETER DRYSDALE. Getting the Australia–China relationship right (East Asia Forum)

There’s no more important issue for Australia at this time in the history of its international economic and foreign affairs than to get the relationship with China right. It’s an issue that went through to the keeper during the election. But for the new Morrison government, forging a viable, credible strategy in its dealings with China will be a priority that plays into all its foreign relations strategies, prominently also with the United States.

Despite negative commentary about the health of the Australia–China relationship, the trade and economic partnership has thrived over the past few years.

Australia–China goods trade topped AU$192 billion in 2018, having grown more than five times as fast as the world average. This remarkable growth was largely due to strong Australian commodity exports and impressive trade diversification.

Australia’s share of Chinese iron ore imports was 60 per cent in 2018. Chinese external procurement of iron ore rose to 90 per cent of its consumption, up from 83 per cent in 2014. Australia’s share of Chinese coal imports rose to a record 54 per cent in 2018, from 48 per cent in 2014. China’s coal imports from Australia grew by 9.8 per cent year-on-year, despite China’s reportedly tightening import restrictions on coal in the last few months of 2018.

On the back of early-stage China–Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) tariff reductions, Australian wine and dairy exports to China have seen strong growth, despite reports in June 2018 of wine shipments being held up in Chinese customs. Australian wine exports to China grew 18 per cent in 2018 to AU$1.1 billion compared with 10 per cent globally. Growth of 34 per cent in dairy exports the last financial year made Australia China’s fourth-largest supplier.

In services, Australian exports to China grew 17.2 per cent to AU$16.9 billion in 2017–18, more than double the growth in Australia’s total services exports over the same period. This included 16.7 per cent growth in the travel sector. A record 1.43 million tourists in 2018 makes China Australia’s largest source of short-term visitor arrivals. The export of education also continues to grow. The total number of Chinese students in Australia stands at a record 205,000.

It’s properly functioning markets that have delivered these strong Australia–China trade results. Australia’s largest trade relationship is one that is interdependent with (not dependent on) China, as it already draws a quarter of its imports of strategic raw materials from Australia, a proportion that continues to grow.

The bilateral investment relationship is a different story, as the data released from the Asian Bureau of Economic Research’s Chinese investment database this week indicates. That’s in part because the political relationship has sputtered.

The biggest risk is that Australia gets trapped in an uncertain US strategy towards China that will invite hostility from the country’s most important trading partner and change the global rules of engagement in a way that opens Australia to real damage.

That’s why establishing a constructive trajectory in political dealings with China is crucial: because of its importance to the economic ambitions of the Australian community; because it is central to preserving prosperity and political stability in the Asia Pacific region; and because it is critical to securing the rules-based global economic and political system that underpins Australia’s prosperity and political security.

Worrying about poor diplomatic messaging or the lack of a good ‘narrative’ to describe the Australia–China relationship is misplaced. The narratives about political influence and false ‘choices’ between economic and security interests and partners are not core problems, but Australian national housekeeping problems.

What needs to be done now is to bring into play all the machinery Australia has in the bilateral relationship to persuade China and the Australian public that there are strong joint interests that can escape the shadow of US–China trade and other tensions.

This does not mean any dramatic change in Australia’s security relationship with the United States, unless that country was to demand lockstep Australian support for an aggressive posture towards China and abandonment of rules-based multilateralism.

The resilience of the Australia–China trade relationship depends fundamentally on both partners’ commitment to the international market system and the rules under which it has flourished. That system is the core of economic and political security in Asia and it’s under threat from the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ trade and decoupling strategies. Australia and China have common cause with their partners in the region in dealing with this global threat. At the same time the political anxieties caused by China’s rise, partly but not wholly because of its different political system, have to be confronted frankly in Australia’s dialogue with China.

The core task is to enunciate these substantial strategic interests that both countries share in a time of great change. This task will be on-going. It cannot sensibly be dealt with at a single point in time. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Australia and China, the Strategic Economic Dialogue and ChAFTA are key vehicles for addressing them over time. Both countries can commit to strengthening this machinery by building-in a broad-based infrastructure of dialogue to engage on the evolving agenda of a partnership focused on change.

What’s clear is that the new Australian government now has an opportunity to propose to China’s leaders a high-level dialogue on shared interests. China’s policymakers will want to talk about difficult things like Huawei and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Australia’s will want to talk about difficult things like militarising the South China Sea, the Uyghurs and ways of dealing with BRI problems. But that need not frustrate sympathetic engagement on the very big agenda that both countries share.

Peter Drysdale is Head of the Asian Bureau of Economic Research and Editor-in-Chief of East Asia Forum in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. He was co-author of the Australia–China Joint Economic Report in 2016 and of a new report released this week titled Getting the Australia–China Relationship Right

This article was published by East Asia Forum on the 23rd of May 2019. 

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2 Responses to PETER DRYSDALE. Getting the Australia–China relationship right (East Asia Forum)

  1. Hi Anthony, We are indeed seeing an interesting return to pre-Enlightenment humanity. The atheistic Chinese Communist Party uses advanced Orwellian technology to control a billion citizens, does a deal with the Pope to control the minority Roman Catholics and uses more traditional methods of suppression against Tibetans and Uyghurs whose view of the world extends beyond the infinite wisdom of the Party.

    Donald Trump picked up the votes of America’s religious Right in his victory but now finds them hungry to abolish abortion. In a country already dangerously divided he needs this fight like a hole in the head.

    Among all the lies told in our recent election the greatest whopper of all was the furphy that religious freedom in Australia is under threat. Scott Morrison is himself a happy-clapping Christian but he knows that moderation is the key to his longevity in the Lodge. His most urgent task is to cool down trouble-makers in his government trying to use the Old Testament rants of an athletic rugby player to create chaos in the electorate.

    Meanwhile the greatest immediate threat in Australia’s neighbourhood is the corrupting influence of vicious Saudi Arabian Islam next door in Indonesia.

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    The subject of militarizing the South China Seas and the Uyghurs is guaranteed to stall any serious talks with China at a high level. How does the militarizing South China Seas affect Australia? The Uyghurs affair is China’s claim as a way in preventing against terrorist activities and Western countries are so keen to stopping terrorist activities, why criticize China when the US is ready to bomb the terrorists. The Uyghurs issue is at best controversial.
    https://www.quora.com/Does-China-have-a-legal-obligation-to-obey-the-ruling-of-UNCLOS-Why-did-Western-media-say-it-would-damage-their-image-if-China-refused-to-honor-it
    https://www.scmp.com/video/china/2163300/why-china-keeping-tight-grip-xinjiang
    This approach is analogous lto thrusting human rights issues from the lens of western universal values and talking about independence of Chinese territories. These issues are also no goers. China’s interpretation will be that these topics belong the western propaganda partisan to the containment of China by the US.
    https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-problem-with-Australia-s-approach-to-human-rights-in-the-PRC
    Unless China is convinced it is a genuine Australian concern as a friend (not customer) or these concerns are independent of the US, then there is a hope a meaningful dialogue at a high level.
    On the other hand, if the allegations are true, there must be a way to approach China without having these issues becoming a barrier to talks.
    DFAT needs to go back to the drawing board and come out with a more pragmatic approach with China if we are to maintain our prosperous trade relations with China. I am sure economic necessity will goad DFAT into coming out with a “clever” solution that is independent of US foreign policy.

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