On 23 November 2022, it will be six months since Anthony Albanese was inaugurated Australia’s 31st Prime Minister—and 8th Labor Prime Minister (out of 18) since the Second World War. Past postwar Labor leaders included Queenslander Kevin Rudd, South Australian Julia Gillard, NSW-based Paul Keating, Victorian Bob Hawke, NSW-based Gough Whitlam, and NSW-based Ben Chifley. In his predecessors’ footsteps Albanese will walk, leap, and make new policy inroads, including towards Beijing and Taipei. But is it going to be a continuation of tit-for-tat diplomatic “wargames” (and Australia potentially becoming a target for Chinese nuclear torpedoes), or an era of renewed diplomacy?
Covid-19 effect on Australia’s policy towards China
PM Scott Morrison’s era coincided with the sharpest decline of Australia’s relationship with China, uncompromising Covid-19 hard lockdown of Australia’s borders, and the inability of Chinese students (among all other foreigners and Australians) to reach their university, accommodation, and families. Western Sydney University chancellor, Professor Peter Shergold, led the first and independently funded review into Australia’s responses to Covid, which was supported by three prominent philanthropic associations (the Paul Ramsay Foundation, the Minderoo Foundation and the John and Myriam Wylie Foundation). The review has found that pre-existing inequalities and social vulnerabilities in Australia were only exacerbated with the uncoordinated and poorly planned official responses to the pandemic. Businesses, church groups and NGOs stepped in to fill in the void left by government inaction or the lack of foresight, which has highlighted the need for better preparedness and resilience ahead of any future health pandemic.
Australia’s relationship with its main trade partner, China, hit the rock bottom during the pandemic. In April 2020, China’s Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye used menacing language to warn Australia about economic consequences from diplomatic fallout following the then Prime Minister Morrison’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China—which indirectly pointed the blaming finger towards Beijing. In August 2020, a prominent Australian Chinese journalist Cheng Lei was detained by the Chinese authorities and remains incommunicado at the time of writing. This has led to the last two remaining Australian journalists in China, AFR journalist Mike Smith and ABC journalist Bill Birtles to swiftly leave China for good under pressure.
Taipei’s “charm diplomacy” yielding success
Concurrently, Taipei’s diplomatic efforts have also doubled up during the pandemic, bringing Australia’s intellectual and political elites closer to their Taiwanese counterparts than ever before. New NGO, academic and civil society links were forged, as well as political, energy and economic ties—despite Australia’s One-China policy that officially remains unchanged. In the 2021 Census, the number of Chinese identified respondents (by ancestry) stood at 1.39 million, with many Taiwan-born people (31,443 out of 49,551) also identifying as Chinese (63.5%). The increase in cross-strait tensions between Beijing and Taipei is likely to continue to affect the intra-communal relations amongst the Chinese and Taiwanese diaspora communities in Australia.
Furthermore, the Australian government is likely to continue to pursue the freedom of navigation (FON) and overflight exercises with the French, US and other partner countries in the South China Sea–which could inadvertently put the Royal Australian Navy on a risky path with the Chinese military which has happened multiple times over the past two decades. The Albanese Government has so far offered no indication of any change of Australia’s position regarding FON in the South China Sea. Yet, despite obvious differences between Canberra and Beijing on many regional issues, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has met with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of international meetings, signaling some improvement in bilateral relations at the highest diplomatic level.
“Fortress Australia” and “Fortress China” impacting cross-border links
The 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China unsurprisingly confirmed the third term of President Xi Jinping as the party’s head. He will also assume the unprecedented third presidential term—the first President of China since Mao Zedong (1949-1976) to hold such position.
Australia’s loss of reputation and popularity in China following numerous strains in bilateral relations and the increased Chinese government’s criticism in the local and national media, might take years to repair. There has been a steady decline in the number of Chinese students returning to Australia. China’s strict quarantine border control policies have also been a disincentive for many Chinese students to travel abroad, with many continuing their studies online. The pandemic has exposed Australian universities and business schools’ over-reliance on foreign students’ revenue, especially from China, which has led to inevitable job cuts (1 in 5 university sector jobs). “Fortress Australia” and “Fortress China” policies have negatively impacted cross-border links. Coupled with greater strategic competition between China and the Western countries, including in the Southwest Pacific region, the Albanese Government is likely to continue to maintain the language of diplomatic “wargames” while rebuilding some aspects of the bilateral relationship in the background. While the national Covid-19 pandemic response measures have adversely affected Canberra-Beijing ties, there could be some faint glimmers of hope in the years to come.