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China and Australia Agree to Mend Ties. But Will This Impact Security?

In what was widely viewed as a diplomatic success, China and Australia agreed this week to put bygones behind them and improve economic, diplomatic and trade relations, which had soured in recent years.

But as the two sides work to stabilize ties, questions remain as to whether Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s four-day visit to China through Tuesday and his emphasis on greater communication with Beijing will be enough to also help ease mounting security tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.

Following a meeting in Beijing with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Albanese — who became the first Australian leader to visit China since 2016 — said that “a strong relationship” between the two countries would be “beneficial into the future.”

“I believe we can all benefit from the greater understanding that comes from high-level dialogue and people-to-people links,” said Albanese, who has been working to improve ties with China — by far Australia’s largest trading partner — since taking office in May last year.

Bilateral relations had soured under Albanese’s predecessor, Scott Morrison, over a number of issues, including concerns about human rights in China and calls for independent investigations into the origins of COVID-19.

But since the Xi-Albanese meeting last November in Bali, Beijing has been gradually lifting the trade barriers it imposed on Australian exports, removing restrictions on hay, timber and barley, while agreeing to review tariffs of 218% on Australian wine.

Albanese’s less confrontational approach seems to be yielding results. Australia is reported to have exported $6 billion worth of these products to China between January and August, compared with the $85 million in the same period last year.

During his recent meeting with Xi, Albanese also advocated for the removal of the remaining trade barriers, calling for “the full resumption of free and unimpeded (bilateral) trade.”

“Our proximity, our economic complementarities, and close people-to-people ties make us important partners now and into the future,” said Albanese, who invited Xi to visit Australia.

Albanese meets with Xi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday.
Albanese meets with Xi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday. | AAP / VIA REUTERS 

During his trip the Australian leader — who was accompanied by a large business delegation — also met with Chinese Premier Li Qian and the head of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, Zhao Leji.

The Beijing talks marked the formal restart of high-level annual meetings between the two sides, which agreed to pursue greater cooperation in several areas, including food, energy, climate change and education.

Xi welcomed the move, saying the two countries stood to become “trusting partners” and were on the “correct path of improving and developing relations” as they had “no historical grievances or disputes and no fundamental conflicts of interest.”

Louise Edwards, a China expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said Albanese’s trip was of “tremendous domestic significance” as it reassured millions of Australians who were concerned about the deterioration in relations under the previous government.

“Australia’s exporters across all industries welcome the return to this more mature approach since many found themselves being collateral damage for sometimes petty, short-term political agendas,” she said.

Jocelyn Chey, a former Australian diplomat who is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Technology Sydney, pointed out that one major trade issue discussed in Beijing was China’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) free-trade pact.

“This is not a simple matter and impossible to resolve immediately,” Chey said, noting that Canberra will take into consideration the attitudes and policy platforms of other CPTPP members — such as Japan and Canada — before deciding whether to support Beijing’s membership bid.

At the same time, experts such as Zhiqun Zhu, an international relations professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, argue that Albanese’s trip may have also served as a good example for other U.S. allies of how they “can and must ” skillfully manage relations with both Washington and Beijing, particularly amid the increasingly volatile geopolitical climate.

Although significant, Albanese’s trip marks only another step in easing strained bilateral relations.

Many important differences remain, especially regarding defense and security, with Australia concerned about China’s growing territorial ambitions and Beijing worried about Canberra’s increasing role in Washington’s network of Indo-Pacific security allies.

In Beijing, Albanese made it clear that Canberra would “hold firm” to its interests and values on national and regional issues, reiterating Australia’s opposition to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force — be it over Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea or elsewhere.

Albanese visits the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on Monday.
Albanese visits the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on Monday. | AAP / VIA REUTERS 

In April, Australia outlined a more assertive defense posture that has seen the country prioritize new technologies as well as maritime and long-range strike capabilities amid concerns over China’s rapid military build-up.

The country, which has been deepening defense ties with like-minded countries such as the U.S., Japan and the Philippines, is also a crucial member of the AUKUS and “the Quad” security groupings, both of which are widely seen as primarily meant to deter Chinese aggression and counterbalance its growing influence in the region.

Albanese has argued that these moves are not meant to prepare for war, but rather to “prevent it through deterrence, reassurance and building resilience in the region.”

Despite the goodwill shown by both sides in Beijing, Australia’s security alliance with the United States will remain an essential limitation to how deep it can forge ties with Beijing, said David Goodman, director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

“While Camberra does not always follow Washington’s lead, its commitment to AUKUS and other related arrangements highlights military and political differences that restrict the Sino-Australian relationship,” he said.

But that won’t be the only limiting factor.

Some of the matters that were discussed, and where a degree of agreement seems to have been achieved, will still require time to eventuate, Goodman said, citing the easing of trade disputes and the resumption of high-level government and ministerial dialogues as examples.

However, the improvement of other aspects in the relationship will depend on the wider international environment rather than just bilateral interaction, he added. Examples include Albanese’s request to Xi that there be guardrails and military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and China.

While Canberra is unlikely to alter its defense posture anytime soon, it seems the biggest difference in Albanese’s approach — compared with his predecessor — is his willingness to engage directly with Beijing.

“Where there is geostrategic competition, we must all manage it carefully, through dialogue and through understanding,” Albanese said, adding that the strategic partners can advance their respective interests “if we wisely navigate when there are differences.”

Goodman said that while much detail must be worked out in practical terms, Canberra has taken a major step in re-engaging with Beijing and has done so in ways that proceed from Australia’s national economic interests.

Although the trip did not focus on security issues, the more conciliatory tone struck by both sides, as well as Canberra’s efforts to keep lines of communication open, are arguably the biggest takeaways from the trip.

“As nations with different histories, political systems and values, Australia and China will … not be defined by our differences but will be defined by how we can work through these issues,” Albanese said.

Source: The Japan Times