9 min read

Zhang Xudong on Australia-China relations

Zhang Xudong on Australia-China relations

“Avoiding a lose-lose situation: the immediate priority for China-Australia relations”

Zhang Xudong, Research Fellow, Institute of Global Governance and Development, Tongji University, PhD in International Relations, Tsinghua University

[Click here for the original article]

Introduction and Translation by Adam Ni, edited by Yun Jiang


I came across Zhang’s article a while back when scanning for Chinese analyses on Australia-China relations. His article appeared in the January 2021 issue of the China Today magazine, a publication owned by the China Foreign Languages Publishing Administration (aka China International Publishing Group), a key foreign-language publishing outlet of the CCP.

Two things attracted me to this piece. First, the piece is short and clearly written.

Second, Zhang makes an orthodoxy argument as to why the relationship has declined, and thus provides us with a useful baseline understanding of Chinese concerns.

Zhang’s article provides no surprises. He argues that Australia is at fault for the current low in relations due to its biases, and Beijing is not to blame. To reverse the slide in relations, Zhang echoes Beijing’s argument: Australia needs to make amends first because the “knot should be untied by the one that tied it in the first place”.

His argument suffers from the lack of reflection on how Beijing has contributed to the current political impasse.

So, why consider his arguments at all?

Well…a key problem in Australia’s China debate is the lack of engagement with the diversity and nuance of views of Chinese thinkers. If Australia’s China challenge is so important then we should move beyond parsing the words of Global Times and Chinese diplomats.

For those interested in doing that, the following article outlines key concerns about Australia’s approach to China. Whether you agree with them or not, these concerns are widely held by Chinese foreign policy analysts. Therefore, they deserve our attention.


China and Australia should work together to avoid a lose-lose situation and restore the foundation of mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries so that bilateral relations can get back on track as soon as possible.

In recent times, bilateral relations between China and Australia have been in serious decline. This has caused deep concern among insightful observers in both countries. As important trade partners, China-Australia economic and trade cooperation has long brought significant benefits to both countries, and their economic complementarities have led to a close interdependence between these two important Asia-Pacific economies, as well as active bilateral investment and people-to-people exchanges.

However, with the changing international political situation, especially the intensification of Sino-US geopolitical competition in the Asia-Pacific region since the Trump administration came to office, Australia, as a key US ally in the region, has taken a clear side. It has been viewing China’s development and growth with a strong ideological bias. Australia is gradually adjusting its characterisation of China from a “strategic partner” to a “strategic threat”.

Since 2020, the Australian government has repeatedly taken issue with China on a number of major issues that affect China’s core interest. This has seriously undermined the long-standing atmosphere of friendship and cooperation and the basis of mutual trust for people-to-people and business exchanges. A rather dangerous decline in relations between the two countries was the result, which is clearly something neither side wants. It is imperative that China and Australia work together to avoid a lose-lose situation and to restore the foundation of mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries so that China-Australia relations can be put back on track as soon as possible.

Strong political headwinds in an otherwise benign China-Australia relationship

It goes without saying that Australia, as a Western country, has obvious differences with China in terms of political systems and ideologies, but this has not prevented the two countries from engaging in normal economic and trade cooperation, developing strategic partnerships and promoting people-to-people exchanges, especially in areas such as education and tourism. All of this has brought tangible benefits to the people of both countries.

As China continues to grow and develop, and its international influence continues to climb, new versions of the ‘China threat theory’ have emerged, particularly in relation to the attractiveness of China’s political system and development model to developing countries, its scientific and technological prowess, and its participation in global governance through the ‘One Belt One Road’ project. In the view of countries such as Australia, this has constituted a shock to the existing international order that has been dominated by the West since the end of the Cold War.

Like many Western countries, China has become an inescapable topic of discussion for Australia’s domestic politics. Some politicians are spreading rumours during elections, accusing China of interfering in Australia’s internal affairs, or smearing their political opponents by labelling them as spokespersons for China’s interests. At the same time, these politicians have packaged themselves as defenders of Australia’s national interest against China in order to attract votes and gain political advantages.

Such political games are playing out in several countries because the leaders of these countries are unable to maintain stable economic growth and mitigate domestic conflicts through domestic political reforms or effective policies, so they have to mask their own incompetence by playing up external threats. The institutional and governance dilemmas experienced by Western democracies have increased the urgency to find external scapegoats.

But this scapegoating is not new because it still follows the classic approach employed during the Cold War: using so-called ideological justifications to highlight differences in political systems and values. Under this approach, political propaganda has replaced objective reporting of the truth by deliberately portraying what was mutually beneficial and normal bilateral relations as serious violations of interests of one country by another. To avoid the embarrassment of not being able to produce evidence, “national security” is used as a general excuse, and sensationalist stories such as cyber attacks and spying are employed to attract media attention.

Australian leaders’ misguided view of China has inevitably been influenced by the relationship between China and the US. During the time of the Trump administration, and particularly since the outbreak of the pandemic, the US government has stepped up its efforts to demonise China and put pressure on its allies. Australia has closely followed the US’s lead. This includes seeking to exert security pressure on China by actively building the four-nation QUAD grouping — the US, Japan, India, and Australia. This grouping attempts to contain China's efforts in safeguarding its sovereignty and security interests in the South China Sea.

Moreover, through the Five Eyes mechanism, Australia has played up and reinforced the Chinese threat, attacking China’s political system and undermining the basis for cooperation between China and Australia, including between their respective local governments, universities, and enterprises.

One political joke is that Australia spends a lot of money each year on defence to secure its maritime trade routes, with which it trades with its most important trading partner, that is, China. But the source of the threat is also China! How ironic!

Clearly, in today’s transformative settings, the question of how to deal with a rising power like China, which is both the world’s second largest economy and the world’s largest developing country, is not a question to which only Australia is seeking the answer. But obviously, Australia’s expectations of its mode of engagement and interdependence with China are clearly off the mark, and it is lacking in the art of diplomatic flexibility and adaptability.

There are no sovereign territorial disputes between China and Australia, and no serious conflicts of interest in the past. The complementarity and reciprocity of economic and trade exchanges have led to an FTA and further energised the potential for cooperation between the two countries. For Australia, China is its most important consumer market for energy and mineral resources, and its education and tourism sectors rely on the China market. Moreover, China is an indispensable source of growth for Australia as the world economy struggles from the impact of the pandemic.

However, the Australian side has repeatedly undermined the interests of Chinese companies and personnel in Australia. It has treated China as a threat and cooperated with the US in its international crackdown on China. This has forced China to counteract, resulting in a severe impact on Australia’s exports of goods including barley, beef, wine, coal, and iron ore. Awkwardly for the Australian side, companies in the Western camp, from countries whose politicians have given token support for Australia to maintain its tough stance on China, are “taking advantage of Australia’s difficulties” and competing for Australian companies' market share in China.

Worryingly, Australia’s leaders appear to be moving further and further in the wrong direction, paying lip service to “happy coexistence” with China while simultaneously pushing legislation that would give the federal government the power to veto cooperation agreements signed with foreign countries by local governments and self-governing territories, as well as institutions of higher education. This targets China directly.

The Australian government has also threatened to annul the “One Belt, One Road” agreement between China and some Australian state governments [Victoria], as well as making it difficult to continue some long-standing cooperation between the two countries’ universities. In addition, the Australian government has appealed to the World Trade Organisation for its trade dispute with China, hoping to use international pressure to force China to change through multilateral channels. This kind of duplicity and putting the cart before the horse will undoubtedly add to the woes of China-Australia relations.

Actions speak louder than words when it comes to redeeming the unfavourable situation in China-Australia relations

It is not easy for Australia and many Western countries to arrive at the right mindset towards China. But the first thing to do is to be able to listen to different views, especially from knowledgeable people who have long been committed to the development of the bilateral relationship, rather than making strategic decisions narrowly based on their own entrenched and archaic perceptions.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cited the way in which the current government speaks publicly about China-Australia relations as one of the key causes of tension between the two countries. Australia’s foreign affairs spokesperson for the opposition Labor Party, Penny Wong, has also pointed out that Australia is economically dependent on China and that the government should now be thinking about how to help those in the country who are dependent on the Chinese economy, rather than focusing solely on how the current impasse came about.

At the same time, Australia’s leaders cannot afford to live in the hollow light of the political halo they have created themselves and grab the moral high ground by putting a good label on themselves. For example, former Australian government adviser Greg Barnes recently criticised Australia in the media: “it is downright hypocritical to be portraying itself as a global citizen committed to Western values like the rule of law and human rights.” He cited Australia's treatment of refugees and its own Indigenous people, saying that the government had inflicted both mental and physical suffering on them, drawing international criticism, but was still unwilling to change.

While Australia’s political and business communities have called for cooperation with the incoming Biden administration, they have also emphasised the need to ensure that any adjustment in the US-China relationship also leaves room for stability in the China-Australia relationship. In other words, Australia, which had previously followed Trump to a tee, is likely to be “caught between two sides” with both China and the US unsatisfied with Australian policy changes resulting from a change in US administration and the country’s reorientation of its policy towards China. Australia will be committing the cardinal sin of “choosing sides”.

Former Australian Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, put it more colloquially how to resolve the current dilemma in Australia-China relations: “When dealing with China we must remember “face” for our Chinese friends but also “face” for ourselves — these two aspects are often inseparable.” As for specific entry points, Robb suggested that the Australian government should invite China (and the US) to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and work together on World Trade Organisation reform and that it should be a partner with China in dealing with the West.

Chinese leaders have repeatedly conveyed a clear message to Western countries that all parties should abandon Cold War-style thinking, refrain from viewing other countries' development along ideological lines and refrain from politicising normal economic and trade cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. It is clear, however, that some Australian politicians are still looking at China from the perspective of decades ago, unable to properly confront China's current international influence and not recognising the international status that China deserves.

How to convince the international community, especially the developed Western countries, to trust and accept China, and to find a path of healthy competition and peaceful coexistence with China, remains a challenge that needs to be addressed. For China, learning to defend its own interests while at the same time maintaining its image as a major power in the international arena is also a mandatory lesson on the road to national rejuvenation.

The conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a major step forward in regional economic integration for Asia-Pacific countries, including Australia and China. This should have been a strong impetus for the further development of trade and economic relations between Australia and China, but it is sad to see that the cold political relations between the two sides have led to a cold winter for trade and economic cooperation.

A knot should be untied by the one that tied it in the first place. The key to untying the contradictions in China-Australia relations is that actions speak louder than words. As Andrew Robb has said, constructive, positive efforts to work together are endless. As long as there is goodwill and purpose, a way out will always be found.

Right now, Australia should take a serious look at the world’s political and economic trends in the context of the post-pandemic global economic recovery, and reassess the importance of the China-Australia strategic relationship and the strategic significance of cooperation with China. It should strike a proper balance between the strategic choices between China and the US, and make more meaningful and positive efforts to restore the normal development of China-Australia relations. On that basis, China and Australia should also resume communication and dialogue on diplomacy, trade and commerce, and security as soon as possible, so as to lay a solid foundation for the restoration of relations between the two countries through practical cooperation in the post-epidemic era.