Australia learns the real meaning of China ties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 July, 2009, 12:00am

The detention of Shanghai-based Australian mining executive Stern Hu and three of his Chinese colleagues is providing a reality check to Sino-Australia ties. While Australian politicians and media are demanding the Chinese immediately release Mr Hu, Rio Tinto's iron ore marketing chief in China, it is abundantly clear that Beijing is not listening.

Yes, Australia is an important source of natural resources for China. Yes, China has replaced Japan as Australia's largest trading partner. And, yes, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is the only fluent Putonghua-speaking leader in the developed world and prides himself on having a deep understanding of Chinese politics.

But does that count for anything when it really matters? When an Australian citizen of some profile is accused of stealing state secrets and bribing steel mills, and is arrested in Shanghai, one might have thought that the past hard work by both countries to cement what most describe as an 'excellent working relationship', would come in handy.

So far, however, it appears not. The case is providing a reality check to Australia about the depth of the relationship between the two countries. This was graphically illustrated when Australia's Trade Minister Simon Crean, in China on an official visit, could only manage last Saturday to meet Sha Hailin, a deputy secretary general of the Shanghai government, about Mr Hu's case. Add to this media reports this week that Australian consular officials have been told that they will not get to see Mr Hu for another month, and the picture emerging is that Beijing is not minded to be more flexible for Canberra.

The Australian media is generating some hype about Mr Hu's arrest and detention. When Australian citizens are detained on serious charges, fabricated or otherwise, in other countries in the region, they tend to be shown little mercy even after diplomatic overtures.

But Mr Hu's case is symbolically different. Australia's economic future is very much tied up with expanding business ties with China. So, at the same time that Mr Hu is languishing in a Shanghai cell, Mr Crean and his colleague, Industry Minister Kim Carr, are meeting Chinese car executives, seeking to open much-needed new markets for Australian car-parts makers for whom beleaguered Detroit is not longer a reliable source of profits.

That Australia wants to ensure Mr Hu's case is resolved for fear of the broader damage it might do to the bilateral economic relationship is reflected in remarks made by Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. He said this week that China needs to 'think very carefully about what implications, if any, [Mr Hu's arrest] has for the international business community and the international investment community's view of China'.

No doubt Beijing has thought carefully about this but knows that countries like Australia will still stay on side, because they have no economic choice but to do so.

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