Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY | 29 October 2023 (IDN) — Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will arrive in Beijing on 4 November for a much-awaited visit to China, the country’s biggest trading partner. Australia’s wine and barley growers, as well as the tourism and tertiary education sectors, will welcome the visit. Albanese is also expected to visit the China International Import Expo in Shanghai to explore trading opportunities.
Since Prime Minister Paul Keating opened Australia’s economy to trade with China and Asia in general, the economic rise of China has ensured that Australia has not faced a recession for over 30 years.
When the pandemic arrived in 2020, China was Australia’s largest trading partner in imports and exports. But the relationship soured when the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April 2020 called for an international probe into the origins of the coronavirus. China was furious, denouncing this as a “political game,” with Australia doing the bidding for the United States to blame for the pandemic on the Chinese. Beijing responded swiftly by imposing tariffs on Australian wines, barley, and lobsters.
Before that, the Australian wine industry had been painstakingly wooing the Chinese, even some vineyards replacing the white grapes with the darker variety because the Chinese preferred red wines. Wineries also reverted to using corks—instead of convenient screw tops—because Chinese consumers liked this traditional plug.
All these unravelled after Morrison’s ill-conceived dig at China. When China imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wines, the sales plummeted by 97%. The country’s biggest overseas market—worth an estimated AUD 1.2 billion ($ 0.76 billion) a year—vanished almost overnight. Australian grape growers are still suffering.
Morrison’s government took China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) disputes process over the wine tariffs. But, since the Albanese government came to power in May 2022, the government has moved swiftly to repair the relationship with Albanese meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Jakarta G20 summit last year. A month later, Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited Beijing, becoming the first Australian foreign minister in four years to visit the capital of its largest trading partner.
It is believed that President Xi extended the invitation to Albanese to visit Beijing in November to coincide with the former Labour Prime Minister Gough Withlam’s visit to China 50 years ago. Whitlam is held in good esteem in China for establishing diplomatic relations. It was in the same year that Australia officially ditched the “White Australia’ policy based on the “yellow peril” fear of Chinese migration.
In preparation for the visit, the Albanese government has indicated that they will withdraw the complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on Chinese wine tariffs and Australia “will not oppose China joining the CPTPP”—the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – which, if China joins, will be the world’s biggest “free” trade agreement.
China’s Commerce Ministry confirmed on 22 October that the two sides had agreed to settle the WTO wine dispute and a dispute over Australian duties on Chinese wind towers.
Officials in Canberra said earlier this month that China has agreed to lift the 218 percent tariffs on Australian wines. Also, in August, Australian authorities said they would not try to cancel an agreement signed by the Northern Territory government awarding a 99-year-old lease of Northern Australia’s Darwin Harbour to a Chinese government-linked company Landbridge Group. The agreement was designed to link Australia to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to promote trade routes to Asia.
More importantly, both countries have now agreed to sidestep sensitive political issues and to focus on trade. It is not clear if Australia would distance itself from the US’s human rights agenda like raising issues regarding the Muslim Uyghurs in China.
On 24 October, Albanese visited Washington to meet President Joe Biden, who has warned him about “trusting the Chinese” during a White House meeting. When an American reporter posed this question to Albanese at a press conference outside the White House, Albanese reportedly said: “It is in Australia’s interest, as well as China’s—but, I believe, in the global interest—for us to have a relationship where there is dialogue.”
The US has showered Australia with many agreements signed during the Albanese visit. These include a plan to invest tens of millions of dollars in cybersecurity for Pacific Islands and undersea cables to bring more reliable communications to the region. This project is aimed at stopping the Pacific Island Countries from accepting a proposal from China’s Huawei. A separate agreement has cleared the way for US spacecraft to be launched from sites in Australia, such as a spaceport in the Northern Territory.
Biden, however, has told Albanese that he cannot guarantee that Congress will approve the AUKUS agreement, where Australia has agreed to invest AUD 300 billion (about $ 190 billion) over 30 years to build nuclear-powered submarines in Australia in collaboration with the US and UK. Though the project is about containing China, the Congress’s concerns are with the transfer of nuclear technology to Australia.
However, there are still senior media personalities in Australia who view China through the “yellow peril” prism and cheerlead this project.
An article on the forthcoming Albanese visit to China by senior Australian journalist Richard McGregor, published by Japan’s Nikkei Asia, reflects this Anglo-Saxon cultural arrogance that views the AUKUS agreement as a vehicle to continue Anglo-Saxon hegemony in Asia.
“The rupture in and subsequent stabilization of bilateral ties with China has provided the world with a real-time experiment in what happens when an emerging superpower like Beijing decides to teach a US-aligned middle power in the Asia-Pacific a lesson,” he argues, adding that what changed China’s attitude to Australia was the unravelling of the AUKUS agreement to build nuclear submarines in Australia with the US and UK.
McGregor noted that the “AUKUS has reverberated around the region”. The strengthening of defence ties with Washington, which includes an increase in the number of US marines rotated in northern Australia, has run in parallel with Canberra, enhancing security cooperation with Japan and India.
In August, Japanese F-35 jets landed near Darwin, where Tokyo has stationed 55 service members, the first time Japan has had such a military presence in Australia since World War II. Washington, Tokyo and Canberra have announced joint patrols off the Philippines, which is locked in a territorial dispute with Beijing.
“The US, Japan, South Korea as well as the UK and European nations have all taken a heightened interest in Australia’s feud with China, sending delegations on the lengthy trek Down Under to understand how the government has stood up to Beijing, and largely gotten away with it”, noted McGregor.
Many in Asia would laugh at this argument. Many countries in Southeast Asia are critical of the above developments, which they see as disturbing the hard-fought peace in Asia. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Official portrait of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. CC BY 4.0
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