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China-Australia relations

Australia should take pragmatic approach

Canberra finds itself increasingly conflicted in trying to balance economic relations with China and security ties with the United States. It could do worse than return to a national interest-based approach in which differences with Beijing are set aside in favour of working on things they can agree on

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 1:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 1:37am

One of China’s best friends in Australia is former foreign minister Bob Carr, now director of the Australia-China Relations Institute.

Each year, he leads a delegation of journalists to China. It is a measure of the chill that has descended on bilateral relations that this year the Chinese authorities have dragged their feet in issuing visas. Carr blames frosty diplomatic ties.

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Few countries have prospered as much as Australia from trade with China. However, the country finds itself increasingly conflicted in trying to balance economic relations with China and security ties with the United States.

This is reflected in anti-China rhetoric, including speeches by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop opposing its regional ambitions, which annoyed Beijing.

They have since tried to smooth things over, but Turnbull has conceded that planned legislation against foreign interference in Australian politics has aggravated tensions.

Now they have been stoked further by the fallout from an Australian lawmaker’s linking of Chinese-Australian political donor Dr Chau Chak Wing with the bribery of a senior United Nations official.

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The lawmaker used information from a confidential American security briefing under the legal protection of parliamentary privilege.

Bishop has rightly called for calm. Australia is not alone with anxiety about balancing China’s rise with long-standing relationships, or concern about its place in the world if good relations with China cannot be maintained.

Indeed, China and the US are trying to close a deal to avert a trade war that could increase American exports to China at Australia’s expense.

Bilateral differences should not be allowed to get out of hand. In the words of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Australia should “take off the tinted glasses” and be more positive towards China’s rise.

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This may call for difficult geopolitical adjustments. Meanwhile, it could do worse than return to a pragmatic, national interest-based approach in which the two sides set aside differences and work on things they can agree on, such as defending free trade.

As Carr says, diplomacy remains the key to being an ally of the US and partner of China, and need not exclude frank exchanges to resolve conflicts.