After a low, China-Australia ties can aim high

Jun 13, 2024
BALI, Nov. 15, 2022 Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 15, 2022. INDONESIA-BALI-CHINA-XI JINPING-AUSTRALIA-ALBANESE-MEETING Image: Imago / Alamy Stock Photo/YanxYan

When I think of Australia, the first things that pop into my mind are koalas and kangaroos. Those adorable marsupials are wooing travellers worldwide every year to the beautiful land.

But travellers can also say hello to Giant Pandas in Australia. It is the only country in the Southern Hemisphere that hosts those cuddly animals from China, which is oceans apart from Australia. Wang Wang and Fu Ni, a pair of Giant Panda bears, travelled from southwest China’s Sichuan Province to Adelaide Zoo in 2009. They have been living in their “Australian Panda Home” for 15 years.

While those pandas are very popular among local residents and international travellers, the ups and downs in China-Australia relations over the years once overshadowed their fate in Australia. Back in 2019, whether the zoo could keep the pandas became a political issue as then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government practiced a hardline China policy. Luckily, because of overwhelming popular demand, an arrangement for the pandas to stay for another five years was made.

Over the past seven or eight years, Canberra had rolled out many hawkish policies towards Beijing, like supporting Taiwan to be included in the World Health Assembly, banning Chinese companies from participating in Australia’s 5G network construction under the so-called national security pretext, and joining the AUKUS nuclear alliance with the United States and Britain that puts the system of nuclear nonproliferation at risk.

During that period of time, bilateral trade and economic cooperation also suffered escalating tensions and was hit with a series of tit-for-tat frictions.

Back in 2013 and 2018, Australia launched investigations into Chinese exports of wind towers, stainless steel sinks and railway wheels, and began to impose anti-dumping and countervailing tariffs one after another. In 2020, Australia decided to extend those measures. And China had also restricted the imports of Australian products such as wine and barley.

In 2022, China-Australia trade declined by 3.9 percent year-on-year, and Australia’s exports to China down by 13.1 percent, according to China’s customs’ data.

Australia’s hardline approach on China had stirred domestic criticism. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said that the Morrison government was provoking China to please America, and was leading Australia into a strategic dead end.

I find no reason for Australia to chill its relations with China, as the two countries have no historical burdens between them, nor do they compete with each other economically. Instead, they enjoy great economic complementarities. China has been Australia’s largest trading partner, export market, and source of imports for 15 consecutive years since 2009. It is also the main importer of agricultural and mineral products from Australia.

Australia’s foreign policy should not be defined by any one other than the Australian people and their government. In fact, the country often boasts itself for its visionary and independent decision making exemplified by the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China back in 1972 following the ice-breaking visit to China by then Australian Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam.

Fortunately, the inauguration of the Labor government in 2022 provided a chance to facilitate a thaw in ties. That year also marked the 50th anniversary of ties. In November 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Indonesia, and reached important consensus on accelerating the improvement of bilateral relations. Almost a year later, Albanese visited Beijing and attended the China International Import Expo in Shanghai.

Those high-level exchanges have brought bilateral ties back to track, paving way for a rebound in trade and investment.

In April, Australia terminated its anti-dumping measures against Chinese wind towers after the World Trade Organisation ruled that Australian duties on Chinese steel products were flawed. And China has canceled anti-dumping duties on Australian wine and dropped its ban on a number of the country’s beef and lamb exporters. The Randall Wine Group, one of Australia’s largest private luxury vineyard holders, recently received orders for about 156,000 bottles from China. More good news on trade is expected.

“Economic complementarity lies at the heart of the bilateral relationship. A focus on areas of common beneficial interest is conducive to a positive atmosphere for dialogue to continue to broaden and enhance bilateral relations,” said Warwick Powell, adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology.

“There’s also a large amount of knowhow that’s being developed in China, ranging from renewable energy solutions, new materials, biotechnology, healthcare and nutrition solutions to name a few, that can benefit Australian enterprises, researchers and consumers,” he said.

The twists and turns in China-Australia ties over the decades have proven that it is in the best interests of their people for the two countries to avoid external interference and pursue win-win cooperation rather than lose-lose camp confrontation.

At the moment, the two countries need to focus on doing the right things for the repaired relations. Earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Australia. Prime Minister Albanese told Wang that the Australian Labor Party had made historical contribution to the establishment of diplomatic ties and the current Labor government is willing to continue the contribution to the constructive development of bilateral ties.

In the talks between Wang and his Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, the future of Giant Pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni at Adelaide Zoo were discussed. Later, Penny Wong said they were “on a good path there to continued Panda presence.”

It is hoped that Beijing and Canberra can renew their cooperation in Panda research so that Giant Pandas can enjoy the blue skies and sunshine of Australia and greet visitors from around the world. I sincerely hope to be one of those visitors.

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