China-Australia relations -- going where brain braceletamid challenges?

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Liu Lin

Associate Research Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science, China

On Dec 13-15, Australian navy Commander Barrett visited Beijing and held talks with the People"s Liberation Army navy commander. Both sides expressed the willingness to expand naval and defense exchanges. This visit is quite timely and helpful if we consider the troubles and challenges that China and Australia are facing recently.

On Dec 9, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull"s criticism of Chinese interference in Australian domestic politics caused a big stir in both China and Australia. In the words of the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Turnbull"s remarks "can sabotage China-Australia relations and are detrimental to the foundation of mutual trust and cooperation".

Before that, Australia"s newly published foreign policy white paper also aroused China"s attention. The white paper had given an overall positive evaluation of China-Australia relations, but made irresponsible remarks on the South China Sea issue. The white paper warned about risks in the South China Sea and suggested that China would not follow the "rules-based order" in place since World War II.

The white paper also emphasized the concept of "Indo-Pacific". This concept is nothing new, but not until recently did it become a hot word. Japan"s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put forward the idea of building a "free and open Indo-Pacific" in August 2016. US President Trump also raised the "Indo-Pacific vision" at this year"s APEC summit in Vietnam. By using this word in the official document, Australia attempts to join hands with the US, Japan and India and balance against the growing influence of China.

In fact, the change of Australia"s tone toward China was also felt in this year"s Shangri-La dialogue. In the keynote speech at the dialogue, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull highlighted the importance of maintaining the rules-based regional order and warned that, "A coercive China would find its neighbors resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space and look to counterweight Beijing"s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships between themselves and especially with the United States."

All these events reflected Australia"s strategic anxiety and grave concerns about China"s rise. Australia thinks that China, with different ideology and values from the West, may want to change the existing international rules and regimes with rising power. China"s promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative and maritime "assertiveness" further deepened this kind of anxiety. So Australia has been an active supporter of the US "rebalance to Asia" strategy, which has the same purpose of balancing against China. However, since US President Trump came to power, because of his "America First" policy, the US future engagement with this region becomes uncertain. But Australia does not want the other countries to fill in the void, and as mentioned in its foreign policy white paper, actively encourages the US to remain involved in the region. It reflects Australia"s belief that the Washington-led regional strategy remains the best one for the region.

This mindset of Australia may need re-examination and adjustment.

First, the international and regional situation is changing dramatically, so looking back nostalgically to the past regional order and holding on to the zero-sum mentality is out of accord with the times. In contrast to the international situation of the Cold War era, cooperation has become the main theme of world affairs. There is no reason for ideology to affect China-Australia relations. Second, despite Australia"s expectation that the US will remain engaged in the region and assist in the preservation of rules-based order, the outcome is uncertain. Trump"s policy, with the characteristics of economic nationalism and protectionism, contradicts with what Australia advocates, such as the free, open and outward-looking regional economy strongly connected to the global markets.

In fact, although China and Australia have different social systems and vary in terms of economic development, the two countries have no historical hatred or basic conflict of interest. On the contrary, they share common interests and views on many important global and regional issues. So both sides should promote cooperation to a new and higher level, instead of taking actions that may complicate the bilateral relationship.

The developmental trend of the Sino-Australian relationship is positive in recent years. The cooperation between the two countries has made smooth progress on the whole despite some digressions. In April 2017, China and Australia held a senior-level security dialogue for the first time. The two countries also held several joint military exercises in the past few years. The economic interdependence between China and Australia is, in particular, a reality that can"t be ignored. Apart from China"s dominant position in Australia"s overseas trade, over a million Chinese tourists visit Australia each year and about 160,000 Chinese students are studying in Australia. Chinese investment in Australia is also highly significant.

Looking at the future, China and Australia should put aside differences and build on the existing cooperation. Some of the differences were caused by misunderstanding and misperceptions. For example, Australia"s concern about China"s maritime activities, especially in the South China Sea, may be partly due to lack of information about the full picture of China"s policy and history of the issue. Of course, China should also make more efforts to let the other countries better understand its policies and positions. In other words, China and Australia need to enhance strategic communication.

There is also great potential for China and Australia to upgrade cooperation. For example, both countries can join hands in promoting the integration of a regional economy, helping regional countries develop infrastructure; dealing with nontraditional threats such as terrorism, piracy and transnational crimes; and expanding military cooperation. That"s the best way to enhance the bilateral relationship and is in accordance with the interests of both countries. By seeking more common ground and overcoming differences, China-Australian relations will have an even brighter future.


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