China-Australia relations find a new tune?

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The meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wany Yi and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the Bali island on 8 July, is certainly an ice-breaker episode, but not a deal maker kind of event at all. It can at best be described as a formal diplomatic encounter in which both parties agreed to keep the doors open for continuous interactions. With the arrival of new Labour Government under the premiership of Anthony Albanese in Canberra in May, some quarters have been expressing a different kind of optimism about the possibility of more frank dialogue between the two countries which have huge mutual business interests but also equally strained diplomatic relations – laced with mutual distrust and cynicism.

Yes, a somewhat positive change can be felt in Canberra. Unlike the Morrison regime, which was blindly toing the lines of Washington vis-à-vis Beijing, the Albanese Government appears to be more pragmatic in its approach, particularly Foreign Minister Penny Wong is driving Australian foreign policy at a different gear compared to her rather dovish and low-profiled predecessor Marise Payne, who was used to confine herself within the prescribed lines of Washington in the domain of foreign policy, specifically with regard to growing Chinese influence in the Asia pacific and Indo-Pacific region. On the contrary, Penny has been showing a very pro-active approach in her dealings with Beijing. In fact, her meeting with Wany Yi, which she called as “first step to stabilising the relationship” was also initiated by herself to develop direct contact with Beijing to take up the simmering contentious problems between the two countries.

Two major recent episodes will have lasting imprints on the fabric of geo-economics and geopolitics of this region, which is gradually turning into a major flashpoint. One, the Ukraine invasion was the first event at the start of this year that triggered a renewed insecurity in the ASEAN region, where most of the States still prefer to call themselves non-aligned. This sense of insecurity was deliberately fanned by the United States with a clear objective to engage the regional countries in different security dialogues and combined projects to create a robust anti-China bloc here.

The second factor is the inclusion of China as a “threat” in the final communication of NATO’s last month summit in Madrid. For the first time every since its inception in 1949, NATO has added China officially in its documents as a major threat and challenge to international order and culture of rules of law. This is certainly a deliberate provocation on the part of Washington and its allies to initiate a pseudo-Cold War with China. Obviously, the inclusion of China as “threat” in official NATO papers has further fuelled the security concerns of regional States to seek the indirect protection of the US and NATO. The same is happening with the new leadership in Canberra, which is already quite suspicious of China’s true intentions behind its increased physical presence in the Asia Pacific through infrastructure developments in different island States in the vicinity of Australia.

At the heart of current tension between China-Australia relations is the Chinese investments in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, the two island nations in the neighbourhood of Australia. In April, China signed a bilateral security cooperation agreement with the Solomon Island, which focuses on boosting the security capacity of the and also encompasses the cooperation on humanitarian assistance, disaster response and efforts to maintain social order. However, a clause in the agreement allows China to make ship visits to, carry out logistical replacement is and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands as well as send Chinese forces to protect Chinese personnel and major projects. This particular clause raised eyebrows in Washington and Canberra about China’s clandestine plan to establish a military base there. Just after taking charge as foreign minister, Penny Wong rushed to Honiara and met Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who reaffirmed to her that there are no plans to construct a Chinese military base there and there will be no persistent foreign military presence.

He also assured Penny that Australia remained the country’s first partner of choice in matters of security and development. This was first real diplomatic success of Penny as foreign minister after taking charge. Similarly, in the case of Papua New Guinea, where China has also categorically denied the plans to establish any kind of military infrastructure in the new economic zone. Interestingly, in recent part, the PNG government agreed for Australia and the United States to modernize a former American naval base at Manus Island from World War Two. While the new claims about a Chinese military base are sternly denied by the Chinese yet, they have seriously unsettled Australia, which is PNG’s closest neighbor. Foreign policy of Australia, it seems, has started new phase with Penny Wong at the helm.

For the last many decades, Australia has relied more on outside powers to make alliances for the regional security in the Asia-Pacific. The QUAD, the quadrilateral security dialogue involving the US, India and Japan, as well as AUKUS (comprising Australia, the US and the UK) the lucid examples of Australia’s tendency to depend upon the US and its NATO allies for security matters, however, ever since Beijing has to extend its influence aggressively in the region, the policy makers at Canberra have also started realising the need to redefine Australia’s regional engagement with the small Pacific nation States, the ASEAN countries – and now with Beijing which has a longtime engagement in the region.

For the last one decade, Beijing has twice elevated China’s diplomatic partnership with the region, and so far, eight countries are now labelled as comprehensive strategic partners – the highest diplomatic partnership classification in China’s foreign relations. President Xi Jinping has twice attended summits there in 2014 and 2018. The dilemma of Australia is that it has deliberately carved its image of a “facilitator” to safeguard the American interests in the region and, at the same time, it can’t afford to risk its business interests in the Chinese market, which is one of the largest export market for the Australian products.

That’s why, Penny has shifted the decades-old Australian narrative of “balance of power” to new mantra of “equilibrium of power” with a view to find something acceptable to both sides, which is the trickiest part for the Australian diplomacy at the moment. The good thing is that Penny has taken initiative to mend fences diplomatic ties with Beijing, but still there is a long way to go in this matter — many complications and convulsions waiting ahead.

Dr. Imran Khalid