Whoever wins, it doesn't bode well for China ties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 August, 2010, 12:00am

Australians go to the polls in a general election tomorrow and, no matter which political party wins, policies to reduce immigration and increase scrutiny of foreign investment could have an adverse impact on China-Australia relations.

This is the first election in recent Australian history in which the two prime ministerial candidates are not only foreign policy novices, but individuals with seemingly little interest in regional affairs.

The incumbent Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, replaced Kevin Rudd, a long-time student of China and a man with a sense of ambition about the role a middle-ranking power like Australia could play in influencing global affairs. Gillard, a trade union lawyer, is much more focused on tending the hearth at home.

Her opponent, the Liberal Party's Tony Abbott, is a conservative who leads a party with policies that play to long-standing Australian fears about 'invaders from the north'.

Foreign policy, and relations with China, has played little or no role in this election campaign. This is despite the fact that China is fast becoming Australia's most important foreign policy relationship. As Bloomberg reported recently: 'Australia's two-way trade with China was A$85.1 billion (HK$596 billion) in 2009, up 15.1 per cent from a year earlier, with iron ore making up half the exports. Chinese investment, particularly in minerals and energy, also continues to increase.'

But the image being projected by both Gillard and Abbott in this election campaign is that Australia is potentially less involved with China and the Asia-Pacific region generally. Both leaders have spoken of reducing migration to what they call 'sustainable' levels.

A hardline stance is being taken by both leaders on asylum seekers arriving on leaky boats from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and other countries. And there have been suggestions of greater scrutiny, and even restrictions, on foreign ownership of farms and residential properties.

Rudd's idea of an Asia-Pacific Community, which was beginning to gain some traction, has been shelved.

All these policy stances will potentially have an impact on China. If Australian immigration is slashed, this will affect its capacity to produce coal and iron ore on which China has some reliance and Australian diplomatic influence in Beijing will diminish as a consequence. Clamping down on foreign investment by China in Australia would similarly undermine the relationship between the two countries.

It is important also for China that Australia, as a leading middleweight power in the Asian region, does not always march to the tune of its allies Japan and the US and is therefore a useful bridge in the context of reducing regional tensions.

One commentator mused recently that Australia's relationship with China is 'crucial, complex and growing' and which 'requires intelligent attention'. The signs so far are that neither Gillard nor Abbott understands this.

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