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From friend to foe: How China and Australia went from allies to enemies

China: Sam Armstrong reveals ‘risk’ of strategic dependency

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China has a long and complex history with Western nations, marred by mistrust and scapegoating. The new Aukus deal – between the US, UK and Australia – designed to battle Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific, is the latest in a long line of threatening hostilities. And it marks the final nail in the coffin in what once could have been friendly relations with Canberra. So how did this happen?

When Xi Jinping took control of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, the Australian government was setting out plans to incorporate China into its culture and economy.

In the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, Canberra set out national objectives that included teaching Asian languages such as Mandarin in schools, strengthening trade relations with Beijing and opening up its economy to Asia.

The white paper was part of Australia’s move away from its colonial Commonwealth roots and toward carving out a role as a regional power in its own right.

For the next year, Australia and China negotiated a free-trade deal and relationship reset between the nations.

Addressing Australia’s parliament, Mr Xi said: “We should increase mutual understanding and be sincere and trustworthy partners”, adding that the nations were “not burdened by historical problems between us”.

He said: “We have every reason to go beyond a commercial partnership to become strategic partners who have a shared vision and pursue common goals.”

But cracks began to show almost immediately.

Just before the address in Australia, Mr Xi had delivered a very different address to his countrymen.

In January 2013, shortly after becoming the chairman of the Communist Party and just months before becoming Chinese president, Mr Xi laid out plans to make China a global superpower through economic and technological might.

In a speech to the Communist Party, he said: “We must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power.”

The focus would be on “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”

First came the cyberattacks, with Chinese state-linked hackers going after the Australian parliament, the country’s Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian National University and numerous others.

Then came attacks on Australia’s Chinese-language media, with reports of coercion, bullying and intimidation at any outlet daring to depart from the Communist Party line.

Reports emerged that China had interfered with the Australian political establishment, seeking to steer policy in China’s favour.

Investigations found Beijing-linked businesses were the largest sources of donations with foreign ties, and the money went to both sides of the political spectrum.

In 2017, Australian Labor Party Senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign over his ties to Chinese Communist Party-linked donors.

And over the past 18 months, China hit Australia with a series of trade restrictions and tariffs in response to Canberra’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Meanwhile, China was also building its military might in the region, making sweeping claims to the South China Sea.

In 2021, when Aukus was announced, it signalled the end of any attempts for China and Australia to heal rifts.

Under the alliance, the US, UK and Australia have agreed to share advanced technologies with one another, including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, quantum computing, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities.

Michael Shoebridge, a director at the influential Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank, said: “It’s a remarkable collapse in Australia-China relations and a massive deterioration in Australia’s security outlook that’s led to this outcome.”

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