China-Australia relations

Stronger China links best for Australia

Despite its unease in a fast-changing environment where US power is seemingly waning, Canberra would be wise to improve understanding with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 1:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 1:12am

Australia needs to confront its geopolitical realities. Chinese trade and investment are all-important to its economy, but its foreign affairs and defence are heavily influenced by the United States. China’s expanding strength and confidence and America’s looking inward under President Donald Trump require a reassessment. The discussion should not be tainted by scandals over political donations.

Some officials and parts of the Australian media have portrayed the introduction of long needed laws on foreign political donations and an overhaul of espionage and intelligence legislation as being necessary because of Beijing’s alleged interference in domestic affairs and pressure on university students. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said as much when unveiling the measures last week, although he emphasised that reports of Russia’s claimed meddling in elections in Europe and the US were also a cause for concern. China reacted angrily, lodging a complaint with Canberra and a foreign ministry spokesman said such comments were baseless, prejudicial and poisoned the atmosphere of relations.

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Chinese are worried about a backlash, some expressing concern for personal safety. Australia is a multicultural and tolerant country; such fears are unfounded. The accusations have not been proven, although the involvement of ethnic Chinese cannot be disputed. Federal lawmaker Sam Dastyari announced his resignation on Tuesday over his relationship with a high-profile Chinese-born Australian property developer and Chinese-linked donations have been made to the leading political parties.

The case involving the senator has been especially troubling; he had his personal expenses paid for and then made a pro-Beijing speech on the South China Sea and allegedly tipped the businessman off about surveillance. Australia is one of the few countries to allow foreign political donations and overseas funding has long been making its way to lawmakers and their parties. The laws will criminalise foreign interference and require the registration of lobbyists. The definitions of treason and espionage will also be broadened to possessing or receiving sensitive information.

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But the issue also highlights Australia’s unease in a fast-changing environment with China’s power growing and that of a long-time defence and security partner, the US, seemingly waning. The favoured approach, as outlined in a recent foreign policy white paper, is for “business as usual”. More sensible, though, would be for an acceptance of the changes and to work for improved understanding and a building of better relations with China. There is every need for trust and that is best attained through greater interaction at all levels.