Regaining healthy China-Australia relations might need tacit US approval: experts


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Regaining healthy China-Australia relations might need tacit US approval: experts


Source: Global Times Published: 2020-12-2

Considering Australia's growing active role as a member of the Five Eyes Alliance, Chinese experts doubt the possibility of a U-turn in bilateral cooperation between China and Australia.

A report by Australia-based media outlet suggested three ways as a grand gesture to start repairing Australia's relationship with China.

Options listed in the report include joining the Belt and Road Initiative, the Australian Senate debating a bill giving the foreign affairs minister the power to cancel international agreements entered into by local governments and universities, and amending foreign investment rules.

But will Australia be powerful enough to make its own decisions when it comes to its China policy? Some experts are not holding their breath as Australia always follows suit with the US.

Puppet reality

Problems existed in China-Australia relations are not actually decided by Australia, which does not have an independent foreign policy and major matters are subject to the US, Yu Lei, a chief research fellow at the Research Center for Pacific Island Countries at Liaocheng University, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

The US is very dissatisfied with Australia's [former prime minister Malcolm] Turnbull when it comes to investment cooperation between Australia and China, Yu added.

"I think that China-Australia relations have reached the point where they are today, and China has little responsibility," Zhou Rong, a senior research fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

As much as 39 percent of Australian goods exported in 2019-20 went to China, which conversely accounted for 27 percent of Australia's imported goods, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on September 3.

"No country could replace China's position in Australia's foreign investment and foreign trade," Zhou stressed.

When the coronavirus pandemic is raging around the world, only China has the ability to invest in Australia and absorb its exports, he pointed out.

Therefore, it is difficult for the Australian government to make major changes against the willingness of the US on issues of leading the way and major investment, Yu said, citing all previous leadership changes of Australia due to the diplomatic factors.

Obstacles in economy, investment

Although Australia might continue to engage in further anti-China political behaviors in the future, it is difficult for Australia's economy, especially foreign trade and investment, to separate from China. Therefore, it is not in Australia's interests to fully decouple from China, Australia's anti-China moves are also difficult to last, Zhou said.

From Zhou's point of view, investment still matters, as when it comes to capital, it's unlikely for Australia to go to the EU, or the US, but it eyes China.

"But [Scott] Morrison will follow Biden for sure," Zhou noted. That said, if Biden takes US-China relations back to rational level, Australia might do the same.

Besides, "the US does not allow Huawei to enter its market or access Australia's market. Australian Prime Minister Morrison dared not violate [such a decision] as otherwise, without American support, he would step down very soon," Yu noted.

"The military alliance between Japan and Australia is also the will of the US, and the Australian government and ruling party dare not protest it. Therefore, in terms of major policies, the Australian government actually has no decision-making power and can only follow the orders of the US," Yu concluded.

But economic realities are nonetheless prompting a moderate approach. "I don't believe that Australia will cut off economic ties with China despite worsening the political relations between the two countries. As a signatory of RCEP, Australia needs China's big market even more. Australia will not reject RCEP because of China's participation, which already implies Australia's desire to expand economic and trade cooperation with China," Zhou said.

Transition timing

With the Trump administration still in office, analysts say the Australian government still needs to make some noise on anti-China issues. The newly elected US administration is about to come to power so Australia is betting on both sides to test whether the new government will continue the old policy to contain China, or whether it will pursue both cooperation and containment.

"China and the US are the main line. If China and the US are stable then China and Australia are stable; in case of Sino-US conflicts, China and Australia must be unstable. This is the overall trend in the development of relations between the two countries after the Cold War," Yu noted.

If the Biden administration does not mind, Australia will sooner or later turn around on economic and trade issues, Zhou elaborated.

"After all, the leading anti-China state is the US. Australia is more anxious than China. Their demand for China exceeds China's demand for Australia. Therefore, the Chinese side must have patience," Zhou suggested.

"At least until the middle of 2021, Australia's demand for improving China-Australia relations will gradually become a mainstream," Yu predicted, adding that "Australia is under great pressure."

However, Yu warned not to expect economic pressure to bring Australia to its knees in a short time. "The US and Australian governments agree that this is the last chance to contain China. If it is not contained now, there will be no chance in the future."

Zhou said that China's attitude toward Australia has always been very restrained.

Zhou Rong is Senior Fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China (RDCY)

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