During an interview with CBS News in September last year, Scott Morrison, then Australia’s prime minister, tried to take a softer tone towards China in claiming that he was “always open” to hearing from Beijing. But asked if he had spoken to China’s leaders over the phone, he admitted that they hadn’t taken a call for nearly two years.
The Chinese foreign ministry quickly questioned Morrison’s sincerity in trying to restore warmer relations. It pointed out he talked tougher on China when he flew to Washington in the same month to attend the first in-person summit of QUAD leaders. In another move aimed at countering Chinese influence in the region, he also approved a new defence pact known as AUKUS with the United States and Britain, which entailed both agreeing to help the Australians build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines (see WiC557).
Decisions like these had meant that relations stayed decidedly frosty between the two governments. But there seemed to be a change in the mood music on Monday when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message to Anthony Albanese, Morrison’s newly-elected replacement.
Pointedly, Li highlighted how Albanese’s Labor Party had made the “correct choice” 50 years earlier when Australia established diplomatic relations with China. But looking ahead, commentators in Australia also now see a chance to improve ties between the two countries. One of them is Morrison’s predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, who told Bloomberg in an interview this week that he expected “a reset” in relations.
“The big difference with the Labor government will be that they will not crank up the political rhetoric in the rather frenzied way that Morrison and particularly Peter Dutton [Morrison’s defence minister] did,” said Turnbull, who led Australia from 2015 to 2018.
Not that Turnbull didn’t run into trouble with Beijing himself when he was prime minister. Notably he barred Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from winning contracts for Australia’s 5G network buildout. Relations were also strained by a new law which Beijing perceived as imposing discriminatory restrictions on Chinese investors.
As such, when Morrison took over from Turnbull in 2018, observers were talking about ‘a reset’ in relations then too.
Morrison took office when former US leader Donald Trump was moving forward aggressively with trade tariffs and tech embargoes that enraged the Chinese. Opposition to China, according to the Global Times, then became a matter of “political correctness” within Australian domestic debate. “He viewed acting tough on China as a trump card to gain support,” the newspaper claimed of Morrison’s motives.
After Morrison won reelection in 2019, he angered the Chinese again by initiating various anti-dumping investigations. But what stoked Beijing’s fury most was a call for an international probe into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic – a move interpreted in Beijing as an effort to hold China culpable for the spread of the virus.
His government also began to weigh in on the sensitive issue of Taiwan – something that its predecessors had been careful to avoid. Defence minister Dutton publicly sounded out the possibility of Australia joining the Americans in a potential conflict to defend the island.
Comments like these culminated in another major row, when a list of ‘14 grievances’ began to make the rounds in the Australian media (Morrison is also said to have presented it to his G7 colleagues) in which Chinese diplomats itemised their frustrations with Canberra (Beijing denied that it had authored the list but Chinese consular officials in Australia then said it should have been much longer).
In an editorial this week, the Global Times described the switch to a more hawkish stance in Canberra after Morrison took office as the “the most inexplicable phenomenon of international relations in recent years”. But it’s far from clear that Albanese is going to take a radically different direction in the months ahead. Speaking after the QUAD’s latest meeting in Tokyo, Australia’s new prime minister repeated his predecessor’s concerns about a recent security deal that Beijing has signed with the Solomon Islands, for instance. “It’s very clear that China is seeking to extend its influence into what has been since the Second World War… the region of the world where Australia has been the security partner of choice,” he warned.
Albanese added that there was no justification for the trade sanctions that the Chinese have imposed on Australian exports including barley and wine, urging Beijing to remove them.
And he laughed off claims that his government would look for a reset in relations by taking more notice of the infamous list of grievances. “The demands, which were placed by China, are entirely inappropriate, we reject all of them,” he said. “We will determine our own values, we will determine Australia’s future direction. It’s China that’s changed, not Australia.”
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