Beyond relations based on economic reliance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2011, 12:00am


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Despite the odd hiccup, China's relations with Australia in recent years have been marked by cordiality and underpinned by mutual economic reliance. Australia has been able to keep faith with its traditional ally, the US, while assuring China that it is not part of a regional thrust to contain Beijing.

But the relationship will need some careful massaging over the next few years if it is to continue its relatively harmonious course. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in Beijing for a visit this week, will no doubt be conscious of this as she meets her counterparts. Gillard, and other Australian political leaders, face some tough decisions about how to play China without a backlash at home.

Australia's political elite have been able to court Beijing, despite some misgivings among its people about China's human rights record and the aggressive forays into the multibillion-dollar Australian resources industry.

But a new poll published this month from the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, underlines Australians' increasing ambiguity towards China. The institute's Michael Wesley said that while 'three-quarters of Australians see China's growth as good for Australia', at the same time 'almost half the adult population say that it is likely China will become a military threat to Australia within the next 20 years'. And almost 60 per cent of respondents think the Australian government is being too easy on Chinese investment proposals.

A major test for Gillard's government is looming in the form of reports that Cubbie Station, a cotton farm in Queensland that has water reserves greater than Sydney Harbour, might be sold to Chinese interests. Water is a scarce commodity in Australia and the idea that China has more than a foothold on the water market could spark a major political backlash.

Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University says that China's ascension will mean that for the first time in Australia's 230-year European history, it will not be closely allied to the world's biggest economy.

If the US ramps up its military and strategic influence as a result of losing its economic crown and this heightens tensions with China, which way will Australia jump? 'A very tough strategic choice' for Australia, White observes.

There is still too much of a one-dimensional view of China in Australia. China buys resources, Australia imports a range of products from China, and that's about it. Both countries need to work on broadening the relationship. The Australian school curriculum is too focused on Europe and the US, and needs to embrace all things Chinese. And the two nations need to be seen to be working co-operatively on foreign policy initiatives, defence exercises and aid programmes in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia and China need each other at a range of levels. While Australia is a middle-ranking power, it is more than useful for China to claim it as an ally given the hostility it meets from Japan and the US.

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