Diplomatic tensions come with a human cost. What lies ahead for Australia and China?


Next year will mark 50 years since Australia established diplomatic ties with China, but the relationship has rapidly deteriorated in recent times.

Key points:

  • Trade tensions continued and concerns over Hong Kong and Taiwan intensified in 2021
  • The geopolitical stoush is having a human cost for those with family detained in China
  • Australia's federal election and China's national congress will both be held in 2022

It was another tumultuous year for Australia-China relations in 2021, continuing a trend from 2020.

The year began with a World Health Organization (WHO)  investigation into the origins of COVID-19, with a delegation sent to Wuhan.

It was something Foreign Minister Marise Payne had called for ahead of other nations, and it made Beijing bristle.

As the year closes out, tensions have taken a sporting turn, with a diplomatic boycott of Beijing's Winter Olympics and speculation swirling around tennis star Peng Shuai.

In between there were other sore points surrounding trade and security: Australia went to the World Trade Organization (WTO) over Chinese tariffs on Australian wine, only for China to lodge its own complaint with the WTO days later.

Ministerial contact between the two nations has apparently been severed, and the ongoing trade tussle has impacted not only wine, but also Australian barley, lobster, beef and coal exports.

Australia also ditched its French submarine deal for AUKUS, a nuclear-powered submarine agreement with the United Kingdom and the United States, in a move widely seen as an attempt to counter China's influence in the Indo-Pacific.

A poll this year showed that trust in China sank to a record low in Australia, with more than 60 per cent of those surveyed saying they view Beijing as a security threat rather than an economic partner.

Pichamon Yeophantong — from the UNSW Canberra at Australian Defence Force Academy — described the relationship as being in a "death spiral", while ANU researcher Ye Xue said the downward trajectory from 2020 was a "new normal".

However, Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, highlighted that the appointment of a new ambassador to Australia might be the best opportunity to hit the restart button on a rocky path.

Australians still detained in China

Two Australians — writer Yang Hengjun and journalist Cheng Lei — remain detained in China over alleged espionage and "illegally supplying state secrets" respectively, and there has been no indication of when they might be released.

"The ongoing detainment of Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun reflects the individual human costs of the tensions in the bilateral relations," Dr Hsu said.

Australian journalist and mother-of-two Cheng Lei has been detained for more than 16 months.(Supplied)

Earlier this year, Beijing released two Canadians — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was freed from custody in Canada.

It was a case widely described as "hostage diplomacy", and observers saw little hope that the release of the two Michaels heralded any change in circumstances for the Australians.

Another continuing source of international outcry that is also affecting Australian families is the treatment of Uyghurs in the north-west region of Xinjiang.

Earlier this month, an unofficial tribunal set up by a prominent British barrister came to the conclusion the Chinese government had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghur Muslim group, saying policies of forced birth control and sterilisation were designed to reduce the population.

The group has also allegedly been subjected to forced labour and arbitrary detention.

Australians such as Mehray Mezensof and Mamutjan Abdurehim say they have been separated from their partners for years.

Mehray Mezensof spoke to the ABC about the ongoing detention of her husband in Xinjiang.(ABC News: Grace Tobin)

The US, Australia and other nations say the treatment of Uyghurs — among other human rights issues — is part of the reason their diplomats will not attend the Winter Olympics early next year.

Chinese officials condemned the move, saying "no one would care whether these people come or not".

Dr Hsu said Beijing would use the event in February to shape perceptions of China, by "showing it is a friend to the world through sports".

"It will make a concerted push to use sports [and/or the] Olympics to demonstrate that it is not aggressive and can hold safe and friendly games," she said.

China observers say Beijing will use the Winter Olympics to project a good image.(Reuters: Tingshu Wang)BRI deal axed, Hong Kong's freedoms decline

The federal government's cancellation of Victoria's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) agreement with Beijing was a significant moment this year — one that signalled the relationship might get worse before it gets better, Dr Yeophantong said.

A global project by Beijing to build a vast network of trade routes, the BRI agreement — in the case of Victoria — was to encourage Chinese infrastructure firms to bid for major projects in the state was part of the nascent agreement.

However, the Australian government tore up the deal before it was fully formed.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and former Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye signed a BRI Framework Agreement in 2019 that was scrapped in 2021. (Supplied: Chinese Embassy)

"It not only stimulated a lot of debate within Australia, but it also struck a real nerve over in Beijing," Dr Yeophantong said, adding there was "anger and frustration" in the domestic messaging in China.

"This project actually is led by President Xi [Jinping] himself, which is very, very important for the Chinese government, especially as China wants to build this global influence," Dr Xue added.

Kevin Carrico, senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University, said the "intensifying repression" in Hong Kong was also significant for Australia, with the federal government offering special visas and a pathway to permanent residency for Hong Kong and British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders.

He pointed to the closure of the Apple Daily news outlet, the recent removal of the Pillar of Shame statue, which commemorated the 1989 loss of Tiananmen Square victims, and the detention of democratic opposition leaders as part of a rapid deterioration for the former British territory.

Hong Kong's government removed the Pillar of Shame at the University of Hong Kong. (Reuters: Tyrone Siu)

"All of those things show how quickly China's control of a political system can transform a society," he said.

"It's not a matter of xenophobia, or fear of so-called 'Chinese influence', but rather simply a genuine collision between a free and open society — which Hong Kong represented to a degree — and a more closed and authoritarian model of politics."

Nuclear submarines and the Taiwan Strait

Taiwan has also shifted into focus for Australia this year, with Australian officials talking of "drums of war" and Chinese President Xi Jinping using the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to re-avow "peaceful unification" with Taiwan.

"Australia's attitude towards Taiwan is also, I think, a new assertiveness from the federal government," Dr Xue said.

The fate of Taiwan has gained more focus in domestic Australian politics this year.(Reuters: Ann Wang)

He said that, in the past, the Taiwan Strait dispute was more low-profile in Australia, but that Defence Minister Peter Dutton made "several, very sharp statements", for both domestic and international reasons.

Mr Dutton said Beijing considered Australia a "tributary state" and warned that, if China seized control of self-governing Taiwan, it would quickly take other disputed areas in the region.

He indicated that Australia would back the US if there was a potential war with China over Taiwan.

His rhetoric was criticised by Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, who said: "Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history."

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"Increasing talk of war in Canberra and more aggressive posturing by Beijing in the region will only increase the discord between the two," Dr Hsu said. 

Dr Yeophantong said it was unlikely Australia's Taiwan policy had irked Beijing, but it did signal Australia was siding with the US, as was the AUKUS agreement.

"For Beijing, at least, domestically, I don't think AUKUS is viewed as a threat, per se," she said, adding China's own naval modernisation program has progressed much further.

"But it just simply provides very clear messaging that Australia will remain firmly in the US camp."

What does 2022 hold?

Dr Hsu sees some hope in the appointment of Xiao Qian, as the new ambassador to Canberra.

"[It] indicates Beijing is moving away from Wolf Warrior diplomacy and, perhaps, may bring some relief to the Australia-China relations," she said.

The previous ambassador's tenure coincided with the series of "economic punishments" meted out to Australia and the release by the Chinese embassy of a list of 14 grievances against Canberra.

"Perhaps with the new ambassador in Canberra it's an opportunity for Australia to restart the relationship," Dr Hsu said. 

Mr Xiao's past roles have included ambassador to Hungary, and posts related to Asian affairs and Korean Peninsula affairs within China's foreign ministry.

Most recently he was the ambassador to Indonesia.

Trade tensions have shaped the Australia-China relationship this year.(Reuters: Jason Lee)

In the year ahead, domestic politics are likely to remain a focus, as Australia prepares for a federal election.

"It depends on whether a new government is formed or if the current government is returned. That, perhaps, will change how the relationship is managed," said Yun Jiang from the Australian National University.

While policies might remain the same, the opposition could change how they're implemented and messaged, and it could open a window for Beijing to engage differently, she said.

One article in the jingoistic tabloid The Global Times suggested bilateral relations were at their "lowest ebb", and that they may worsen during the 2022 election campaign "as candidates would make multiple aggressive speeches targeting China to serve as a public stunt to help them win more votes". 

Chinese President Xi Jinping marked 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party this year.(AP: Xinhua/Li Xueren)

China, meanwhile, is preparing for its National Congress, where the CCP's top leadership is set for the next five years.

Australia's former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, wrote that 2022 would be the most significant year in Xi Jinping's 10-year rule.

Dr Yeophantong said Australia was a middle power and could be a "thorn" in China's side targeting Beijing's soft spots.

However, Dr Jiang pointed out that Washington was a bigger concern for Beijing than Canberra.

"From China's perspective, if it is not a great power yet, then it is going to be a great power soon. And from [Mr Xi's] perspective, the United States is its key competitor," she said.

The experts said Australia needed to find a balance between standing firm on its values and being pragmatic, while also trying to re-engage in a dialogue and deepen our understanding of Beijing's worldview.

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Dr Yeophantong said one way forward might be to focus on human interactions or "people-to-people diplomacy", something Dr Xue said could improve if more Chinese international students return to study in Australia in 2022.

Dr Carrico said he was pessimistic about Australia-China relations in the near future, and anticipated more uncertainty, tumult and withdrawal on the Chinese side. 

He said the Chinese leadership was stuck in a positive feedback loop without a "self-correcting mechanism", and wouldn't recognise that "it's alienating many of its global allies and it's coming off as a bully".

He said China's physical borders were mostly shut as it pursued a COVID-zero strategy, but he feared the country would retreat further in on itself by "closing its doors politically and culturally" too.

"These periods in which the country turns in on itself, closes its doors — those are certainly not the best periods in Chinese history," he said.

"They're reliably the most destructive, most chaotic and most traumatic eras in history."

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Chinese Embassy in Canberra were approached for comment but did not reply by deadline. 

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news




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