Australian leaders must show China more respect

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am
 

What is going on in the minds of Australian politicians about China?

China is Australia's biggest trading partner. In fact, Chinese demand for exports such as iron ore and coal has helped Australia largely avoid the economic crises bedevilling Europe and the US.

Given such realities, one would have thought that the relationship between China and Australia would be marked by respect and friendship. But this is not always the case. Australia's reluctance to break free of its traditional reliance on the United States and suspicion about Chinese state-owned companies making forays into the Australian economy pose a risk to a relationship that is vital for Australia in the 21st century.

Only last week, Tony Abbott, leader of the conservative Liberal Party and, if the polls are to be believed, Australia's next prime minister, delivered a speech in Beijing that could charitably be described as undiplomatic. Abbott told a business audience in Beijing that China needs to liberalise its policy and that 'it would rarely be in Australia's interests to allow a foreign government or its agencies to control an Australian business'.

He also took a swipe at China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, declaring that 'no big country is entitled to get its way with smaller countries just because it can'. One wonders if Abbott delivered the same message to Washington.

Abbott's speech is not the first time a political leader has shown Beijing that Australia is uncomfortable about China. Last year, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced with US President Barack Obama that Australia will host US marines in Darwin as part of America's military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region.

In March, China's state-owned telecommunications giant, Huawei Technologies, was banned from participating in Australia's national broadband network, despite having former foreign minister Alexander Downer on its board. The Australian government is now refusing to release documents about the ban under freedom of information laws.

The risk for Australia in its confused approach is that China will look elsewhere for its minerals and other products. Australia is not the only country in the world rich in mineral wealth, and nor is it the only developed-world nation where Chinese investment can find a home. If the economic relationship faltered, it would hurt Australia much more than it would China.

As the Lowy Institute's Linda Jakobson recently noted in her report on Sino-Australian ties, Canberra needs to build a stand-alone relationship with Beijing that is not shadowed by its ties to the US. So far, the evidence is that there is much work to be done.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser

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