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A brief history of Sino-Australian political relations from 1949 to 2020


To understand what is happening now requires an understanding of history. The recent Sino-Australian relations have been like a roller coaster ride, which needs to date back to history at least from 1949.

There are several characteristics worth mentioning in Sino-Australian relations. First, there have been diplomatic ups-and-downs between the two governments due to the divergence of the two countries’ political systems and ideology. Second, by comparison, bilateral ties have generally been improving for decades due to the reciprocal economic complementarities and cooperation despite the recent trade disputes. Third, Sino-Australian relations “has become more unequal with the passage of time” due to China’s rise. Fourth, the influence of the US on the foreign policy of Australia cannot be underestimated. In terms of structure, this part will be divided into four periods, posited on the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972, the outbreak of Tiananmen Incident in 1989 and the recent decline of bilateral relations starting from 2015 with additional illustration of the influence of the US in Australian foreign policy.

The Pre-recognition politicial relations from 1949 to 1971

Graeme Dobell argues, “China has always loomed in the Australian consciousness”, possibly because Australia is geographically located in the Asia Pacific and surrounded by Asian countries with a significant number of ethnic Chinese. Historically, China was viewed in Australia as a threat, namely, “Yellow Peril”. The notion is a color-metaphor, full of racism. East Asians, especially the ethnic Chinese, are an existential hazard to other countries as immigrants.  Professor Gina Marchetti argues that

the rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and Mongolian invasions of Europe, the yellow peril combines racist terrors of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the east.

In Australia, as a Western country located away from the West,  its Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, infamous as the White Australia Policy, was designed to prohibit Chinese settlers. “Fear of China and hostility to the Chinese immigrants were factors” that supported the Federation of Australia, and both factors existed for decades. The federating of Australia was the process by which the sixBritish colonies consented to unite and become the Commonwealth of Australia. Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt formally abolished the White Australia Policy in 1966 with the introduction of the Migration Act 1966. By legislating legal equality among European and non-European migrants, this new Act has opened a new immigration history era. It has been the most crucial step in forminga multicultural society in Australia.

However, Australia’s unique geographic location and huge disparity of population between Australia and China have decided that the natural insecurity of Australia as a nation, for that linguistically, historically and intellectually, Australian ancestry originates from Europe, and its vital economic partner and most crucial military ally is the United States, both far away from Australia. Furthermore, Gyngell argues there is always “fear of abandonment” in Australian foreign policy. Likewise, former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans and former Australian diplomat Bruce Grant confirm that

the evolution of Australian foreign policy needs to be assessed against a background in Australian politics of persistent anxiety about a threat from Asia: sometimes vague and undifferentiated, sometimes specific, but always there.

In this period, China was viewed in Australia as a threat, namely, the aforementioned “Yellow Peril” and “Red Menace”. Arguably, the Red Menace has always existed in the Australian society and the government until now,which is a term applied during the Cold War for describing a nation that faces the increasing authoritarian threat of communism. This term was used to refer to the Soviet Union, while nowadays, it has been employed to mean Communist China. Besides, the difference of scare only reflects the extent to which the Australian government fears the Chinese Communist Party. From 1949 to 1972, especially when Australian and Chinese troops participated in the Korean War as rivals and later the Cultural Revolution was launched in China, Sino-Australian relations were hostile to each other due to the fact they were both subordinated to different political and ideological camps: USSR-led communism and the United Stated-led capitalism.

The steady development of Sino-Australian political relations from 1972 to 1989

During this period, Sino-Australian relations encountered the most drastic ups and downs the bilateral ties have ever experienced. In 1972, the Whitlam Labor government’s election marked the most radical turning point in Sino-Australian history by establishing diplomatic relations with China in December of the same year. Despite the endeavor, Whitlam made, this new chapter of the bilateral relations is mainly dependent on the change of  China Policy from the strongest ally of Australia, the United States. More concretely, in the early 1970s, the American army was withdrawn from Vietnam, indirectly ending the military collisions with the People’s Liberation Army.At the beginning of 1972, Nixon has his dramatic visit to Beijing and Shanghai.

From 1972 to 1989, the bilateral relations were at the stage of steady development. Partly, the positive Sino-Australian relations can be attributed to the same view of opposing the Soviet threat, which facilitated the Sino-Australian cooperation. More specifically, in July 1973, the first Sino-Australian trade agreement was signed by the Chinese government and the Whitlam government. The visit of Whitlam to Beijing in late 1973 culminated in a joint communique, concurring with the promotion of views exchanges among the Sino-Australian officials. In 1976, during the period of the Coalition-led Fraser government, “the Australian Parliament even stood in silence in the honor” of Mao Zedong, when Mao passed away. In 1978, the Australia-China Council was built by the Coalition-led Fraser government to facilitate bilateral relations.

Furthermore, in the 1980s, with the economic reform of Deng Xiaoping and the incrementally frequent visits of Sino-Australian senior leaders, the Australian government saw the economic opportunities China may bring, and the Chinese government also realized the Chinese modernization might benefit from the support of Australia. Mackerras argues that “the mid-1980s saw the relationship reach a peak”. In 1984, the ALP-led Hawke government launched the China Action Plan, “an overall economic program towards China”, aiming to deepen bilateral economic cooperation. In 1985, Hawke told the Australian parliament that a ‘special relationship’ between the two countries was forming.

The realistic Sino-Australian political relations from 1990 to 2015

The outbreak of the Tiananmen Incident in 1989 was a devastating turnaround in Sino-Australian relations, bringing the vigorous relations to a sudden stop. To some extent, Deng’s economic reform gave Australia and the Western world an illusion that China tried to become more Western. Contrariwise, the Incident shattered misapprehension of the special relationship between the two countries and has pushed human rights to one of the central issues that needs to be addressed in the bilateral agenda until now. It is noteworthy that the negative influence of the Tiananmen Incident was in all domains. Antagonized by the Australian broadcasting of violence in Beijing, the Australian people, including politicians, business people, scholars and religious figures, unanimously condemned Beijing. All aspects of Sino-Australian relations were affected at varying levels.

Arguably, after the Tiananmen Incident, the attitudes of the Australian government has changed to be more pragmatic and national-interest-driven. Wang argues that  the reassessment of Sino-Australian relations “did not lead to a fundamental policy shift” in Canberra “and human rights were not emphasized to the detriment of Australia’s economic interests”. In 1993, as the first Australian Prime Minister after the Incident, Keating visited China, breaking the diplomatic ice, partly because he needed to push wool exports to China.

Noticeably, from 1989 to 2015, China and the comparison of world powers experienced earthshaking changes. The hazards of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998 and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 lead to the economic meltdown of some Southeastern countries and the relative decline of the West. Bearing the two Crises, China has benefited enormously, even the most, from joining the WTO and other regional and global economic organizations as a member of economic globalization. At the end of 2010, China surpassed Japan and has become the second-biggest global economy, indicating that the global economic center has gradually transferred to East Asia. During this period, Hong Kong and Macao were subsequently handed over to China, enhancing China’s confidence. There is no doubt that bilateral relations have been increasingly asymmetrical during this time, leading to the concept of equal partners less possible.

From 1989 to 2015, facing China’s economic rise, on the one hand, the Australian government and business took advantage of the historical opportunities and have been more engaged in the Chinese economy. For instance, the Coalition-led Howard government was a firm“ supporter for China’s accession to the WTO” to share better Chinese economic growth. In 2014, the Coalition-led Abbott government and the Chinese government started to portray the bilateral relations as a “comprehensive strategic partnership” due to the incremental and robust trade relations and more frequent communication between top leaders of the two sides. On the other hand, due to the different political ideologies and systems, and the gradually widening disparity of the two countries, there have been strong concerns in the Australian government that China may leverage trade over Australia. Foot  indicates the sense of uncertainty and insecurity in Canberra that

Has Beijing worked to support the dominant norms of the international order, or has it striven to overturn them? Has it ever deserved to be called “responsible power”, a term defined by the dominant states, or has it acted irresponsibly? To place these questions more explicitly within an international relations framework, has China shown itself since 1949, and more especially during the period of reform and opening since 1979, as capable of be socialized into supporting global norms? Or, as realists would predict, have there been signs that its rising power over the past two decades has generated new tensions in the international system? Looking more to the future, what kind challenge does its enhanced capabilities pose to the status quo?

Despite the dilemma that the Australian government has to face and the political ups and downs between the two countries during this period, “the growing sense of independence in formulating Australia’s policy towards China, as well as the increasing saliency of trade considerations in implementing such policy, has transcended political and inter-administration divides”. Thus, to some extent, although there were still ups and downs during this period from the ALP-led Hawke government to the Coalition-led Abbott government in 2015, the bilateral relations “appears to have become less uncertain” and matured. Arguably, the Australian government started to view China either without unjustified fear as they had before 1972, or super optimism as they had before 1989.

In fact, the differences may only exist in the style of how different administrations approach China. For instance, the first Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced a concept called “Zhengyou in Chinese that means to voice different opinions to benefit the Chinese leadership. By comparison, another Prime Minister John Howard preferred to deal with China on more practical issues.

The increasingly strained bilateral political relations from 2016 to 2020

Bilateral relations have deteriorated since the exacerbation of territorial disputes in the South China Sea in 2016. The Australian government criticized China for not abiding by the South China Sea Arbitration, a joint statement with Japan and the US. In response, the Chinese government expressed its strong displeasure through its state-owned media the Global Times, denouncing Australia as a “paper cat”. Currently, the Australian government is concerned that Chinese activity in the South China Sea may threaten Asia pacific security, thus influencing Australian sovereignty and security.

More importantly, Australia’s closest and strongest ally, the US, initiated a trade war with China at the beginning of 2018.  Since Australia often follows American foreign policy, the increasingly intense Sino-American relations have negatively affected Sino-Australian relations. In the same year, Sino-Australian ties soured further when Australia became the first country to officially ban China’s Huawei from its 5G network. A similar prohibition on Huawei was later executed in the US in 2019.

In terms of domestic politics, there are continuously more negative speeches about China.Australian politician Andrew Hastie urges urged the Australian government and public to realistically recognize the unprecedented democratic conviction and security threat from China. He even goes “as far as to compare the Western tolerance of China’s rise with the appeasement of Nazi Germany”. Hamilton argues Chinese infiltration in Australia is a “silent invasion”. The Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, one of most senior officers in the Liberal-Coalition-led Morrison administration, condemned China’s interference and cyber hacks in Australia and claimed that the policies of the CCP are incompatible with Australian values.

2020 may have been the most turbulent year for Sino-Australian relations so far. Facing the once-a-century Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing has taken trade actions against a series of Australian goods such as barley, cattle, wine, cotton and coal after the Morrison administration advocated an independent Covid-19 inquiry without consulting Beijing first.

The tension also extended to people-to-people exchange. Canberra has warned its residents against arbitrary arrest in China. In contrast, Beijing has cautioned against studying and visiting Australia due to purportedly increasing racism and discrimination against people of Chinese and Asian descent. At the end of 2020, Morrison reacted furiously and demanded an apology from Beijing to an image tweeted by a Chinese diplomat showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat, which has further shadowed current and future relations.

Meanwhile, despite the global pandemic, there is increasing scrutiny in Australian media, including of the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill, the Xinjiang re-education camp, and China’s political donation to Australian political parties, Chinese spy students, the fight between Hong Kong and Chinese students in Australia, the defection of Wang Liqiang, Huawei backdoor suspicion and the detention of Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun. According to the Lowy Institute poll in 2019, Australians’s trust in China to ‘act responsibly’ has dropped to 32 %, a 20-point decline from 2018. In 2020, trust in China has deteriorated to 23%, the lowest point in the Poll’s history.

Whatever, if any, evidence underpins these narratives or not, they seem to point out one reality: the plummeting state of Sino-Australian relations. Geoff Raby, former Australian Ambassador to China, even argues that Sino-Australian relations are at their lowest ebb since 1972.It may be controversial to argue that the current bilateral relations are worse than the relations in 1989, but it is appropriate to point out the reality that the Sino-Australian relations have been incrementally damaged. The Australian government’s dilemma is the overreliance of the Australian trade upon China and the exacerbated political disagreement. Jonathan Pearlman argues that “security and economics are tugging Canberra in different directions, as are its values and its interests”.

The Influence of the United States in Australian foreign policy

Undoubtedly, the Australian foreign policy has been influenced by the American government, as Australia has been called the “fifty-first state” of the US. Australia and the US have the same language background, similar European ancestry, similar political systems and strong economic ties. More importantly, in 1951, Canberra and Washington agreed on the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), regulating that “an attack on either country’s armed forces or territory in the Pacific area” means “common danger” for the three countries. Since the US abolished its responsibilities to New Zealand due to the disputes of nuclear-armed ships, the ANZUS has become a bilateral treaty between Australia and the US and, separately, between Australia and New Zealand.

Given the American economic and military power around the world and the substantial disparity of Australia-American strengths, it is easy to argue that the ANZUS is the cornerstone of Australian security, and the US is the most important ally of Australia. In fact, Australia followed the US’s leadership through the UN, in the Korean War in 1950, the Vietnam War in 1962, the Afghanistan War in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003 and recognized the PRC after the Nixon government had changed its China policy. To underpin the above view, Tow and Albinski affirm that the “ANZUS alliance remains Australia’s primary security relationship”. The former Australian diplomat Dr.Alison Broinowski argue that

Australia uncritically and voluntarily imitates its major ally (the United States) and its minor ally (the United Kingdom) in most things, yet lacks the capacity to do them well and the independence to do them differently. Having taken the drug of dependence from birth, Australia seems allied and addicted to it.

Thus, it is easy to question how independent Australia’s foreign policy is, especially its China policy, and argue that Australia does generally imitate the US’s foreign policy. As for the recent downturn of bilateral relations, Geoff Raby, an insider of Australia politics, believes that Canberra has developed policies to push back China’s rise in that the US started regarding China as a strategic competitor.

However, there is some policy flexibility in the Australian government, mainly economic-interests-motivated. To cite an instance, despite the opposition of the US, Australia participated in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015 and leased the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company in the same year. Australia took the position as an outsider in terms of the Sino-American trade war, suggesting the two sides to end the fight to avoid the risks of collateral damage to Australia. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Australian government adopted a hostile attitude towards China, the wheat trade between China and Australia“reached a significant level”.





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