A path to rapprochement for Australia-China relations – Analysis – Eurasia Review


By Lisa Toohey, Markus Wagner and Weihuan Zhou*

The Australia-China relationship needs a reset, especially on the trade side. The change in Australian government and China’s official reaction to the election presents a unique opportunity for the two nations to rebuild cordial relations and prevent further fractured exchanges.

Prime Minister Albanese called on Beijing to lift the punitive measures imposed on Australia – legally questionable measures under international trade rules. While Australia would like China to unilaterally remove these measures, that is unlikely to happen until there is genuine re-engagement through diplomatic channels.

Reconciliation – the rebuilding of cordial relations after a period of disconnection – allows for productive dialogue and will prevent the relationship from slipping further. Any change in trade relations will require Australia and China to manage political and economic disagreements in a measured, productive and respectful manner. The rapprochement can start with cooperation in areas of common interest. A change of tone and a willingness to constructively discuss differences and mutually beneficial opportunities are needed to achieve this.

The differences between Australia and China can be categorized into three areas: fundamental value conflicts, political differences and regional geostrategic rivalries. Trade and investment grievances run deep in these categories. Australia has banned Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from supplying 5G technologies over security concerns, while China has imposed import restrictions on Australian coal, beef and lobster. Anti-dumping and countervailing retaliatory measures have multiplied on both sides.

This downward spiral of give and take restrictions has further entrenched cynical and reactive attitudes in both governments. The challenge of reconciliation is to find a productive path.

A positive attitude makes a big difference in diplomacy. Although warmongering language evokes nationalistic sentiment and catchy headlines, it is rarely productive. Respectful diplomatic dialogue and a return to legal principles are a proven path to a more productive relationship.

With a Labor government coming to power, some of the necessary rhetorical changes appear to be underway, with both sides beginning to soften their respective tones. While reaffirming Australia’s “respect for democracy”, Albanese stressed the need to “put Australia’s national interests first and not attempt to play politics with matters of national security”. . It hinted at a shift in how Australia can achieve its national interests without compromising its values.

After the election, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message to Premier Albanese. The message reiterated that the cooperation serves the fundamental interests of both countries and showed a willingness to reconnect with Australia to promote the development of a comprehensive strategic partnership. This indicates that China may be open to resuming high-level communications with Australia.

Remembering common ground is another good starting point. A solid foundation for both sides to repair and develop their economic ties already exists. Their economic complementarity means that bilateral trade will continue to grow as China remains Australia’s largest trading partner.

In 2020, despite growing tensions, trade with China accounted for 28.8% of Australia’s total imports and exports. This was three times as much as Australia’s two-way trade with its second largest trading partner, the United States. In 2021, Australian exports to China hit an all-time high. Australia and China also have common interests in a range of trade-related issues such as e-commerce, sustainability and climate change.

Both governments are also proponents of the rules-based global trading system and have joined forces in an ongoing attempt to reinstate the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body. Restoring government-to-government relations will allow the two countries to strengthen and expand their collaboration in areas of common interest.

But considerable challenges to rapprochement may still persist.

Prime Minister Albanese has warned that ‘Australia’s relationship with China will remain difficult’ and asserted that China’s economic sanctions will not induce Australia to compromise on its values ​​or national security objectives . Australia also remains concerned about China’s compliance with its commitments under international trade agreements.

Given the Labor government’s policy to rebuild Australia’s manufacturing industry, Australia may impose heavier tariffs on Chinese imports through anti-dumping actions by treating China as a non-trading economy. This is a policy area where the Labor government may actually be more inclined than the coalition to pursue a policy that China may view as contrary to existing trade agreements, such as the China-China Free Trade Agreement. Australia. Such disagreements between the two governments on these issues will continue to strain relations.

To overcome these challenges, political wisdom and concrete actions are needed on both sides. In a speech before the election, current Foreign Secretary Penny Wong stressed that despite Australia’s disagreements on some policy issues, decoupling is unrealistic and that a healthy relationship with China is of great importance. importance. She said Australia must avoid politicizing China domestically in its approach to China-related issues.

With the resumption of official communications, there is a window of opportunity for the two governments to reset bilateral relations. For this to succeed, the two governments will need to defuse tensions, find mutually agreed approaches to managing their disagreements, and focus on pursuing common interests.

*About the authors:

  • Lisa Toohey is a Professor of Law at Newcastle University and a 2020 Fulbright Scholar sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
  • Markus Wagner is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Wollongong and Director of its Transnational Law and Policy Centre.
  • Weihuan Zhou is Associate Professor, Research Director and Fellow of the Herbert Smith Freehills CIBEL Center at the School of Law and Justice at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum


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