Blog · February 2, 2022

Hitting reset on the Australia–China relationship

Author: Peter Van Ness, ANU

After years of disputes — over the origins of COVID-19, serious Chinese foreign trade restrictions, and differences about the fate of tennis star Peng Shuai — and working together with our Asian and Pacific neighbours, it is time for a new beginning in Australia’s relations with China. Recent events provide the opportunity, and there is evidence that Beijing may also be interested in a new beginning.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade agreement, entered into force on 1 January 2022, linking China and Australia to eight other Asian neighbours, with several other countries soon to join. RCEP is designed to include 15 Asian countries, but neither the United States nor India has joined.

The agreement provides new multilateral opportunities for Australia to cooperate with its ASEAN neighbours and China, without the participation of the United States and other major powers. Australia should take the opportunity to raise the issue about Chinese punitive tariffs on Australian imports in this multilateral forum, while responding creatively to new opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.

About the same time, in response to violent riots in the Solomon Islands last November, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare asked China to send Chinese police liaison officers to help train and equip the Solomon Islands’ police force. Riots had erupted because of differences between Sogavare and the most populous province, Malaita, which arose after the government’s decision to switch its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China back in 2019.

Earlier, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea had sent some 200 soldiers and police to help, responding to the Prime Minister Sogavare’s request. Australia has a security pact with the Solomon Islands, and previously, from 2003 to 2017, deployed Australia Defence Force personnel to assist in maintaining order.

Based on its past experience of working with the police in Honiara, Australia might welcome the Chinese liaison officers and suggest ways to cooperate in their work for the Solomon Islands. Collaborating with both the Solomons and the Chinese in peacekeeping could become a new way to respond to China. Comments by Chinese diplomat Wang Xining, on 20 January, suggest that China might welcome such collaboration.

Both the new relationships with China on trade, and now, potentially in collaborating in peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands, could be a first step in trying to restore a working relationship with China in 2022.

But this is not a proposal to back off on Australia’s criticism of China.

Australia must continue to condemn the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, Chinese territorial aggression in the South China Sea, and China’s betrayal of its 1997 commitment to Hong Kong. Australia should stand firm on its own values and remain willing to point out the worst practices of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian leadership.

Especially in response to its own rise in power, China is going to have to get used to criticism. Australia’s 2022 proposal to China might be something like: collaborate when we can and differ when we must — as we propose to work together to find new guidelines for cooperation and contestation.

Just now, every one of our neighbouring countries, either in Southeast Asia or the Pacific, are trying to work out how to deal with a more powerful and more intrusive China. This is a high priority for all. Working together multilaterally in RCEP, or bilaterally as with the Solomons, regional countries can support each other and learn from each other about how best to work with the China’s government.

In the past, Australian governments have built their national security strategies while depending on commitments from major world powers — mainly the United States. The ANZUS pact and the security relationship with the United States have been the foundation of those ties since the end of the Second World War.

Now, the AUKUS agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia has reinforced that relationship. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, linking the United States, India, Japan and Australia, is another example. On 6 January 2022, the prime ministers of Australia and Japan signed an agreement to enhance military cooperation between the Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

These are commitments from major powers that do not necessarily share Australia’s immediate security concerns in the region and have their own domestic problems that might affect their promises to other countries. The four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, and his distaste for honouring established relations with US allies, should provide evidence that the United States may not always be trusted to honour its commitments.

Over the longer term, Australia’s security will depend on its ability to cooperate and to collaborate on key common problems with its neighbours: countries as diverse and important as Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam — all members of the new RCEP. Australia should encourage and support its neighbours’ concept of ASEAN centrality and its hosting of regional institutions like the ASEAN Plus Three, ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asian Summit.

Working together with the countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific in 2022, Australia should design a new start in relations with China.

Peter Van Ness is a visiting fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.