Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s sharp criticisms of China at a NATO summit are indicative of fundamental political and diplomatic differences that will dash any hopes of a reset in frayed relations with Beijing, experts say.
At the NATO Public Forum in Madrid, Mr Albanese said Australia had been subject to “economic coercion” by China, which he described as seeking to undermine western alliances and become the world’s most powerful nation.
The now 32-member security alliance released a strategy paper on Thursday saying China’s use of coercive policies challenged its “interests, security, and values” and criticising its “deepening partnership” with Russia as an effort to undermine international order.
“Albanese in using this kind of language about China using economic coercion against Australia is just reproducing a lot of the language that was used by Scott Morrison,” said Benjamin Herscovitch from the ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance.
China slapped $20 billion worth of tariffs on Australian exports such as wine, beef and cotton two years ago.
Dr Herscovitch said that the government was continuing a strategy of “publicly naming and shaming” Beijing over the measures, which, he said, were one of several issues likely to stand in the way of a rapprochement.
“Beijing and Canberra are divided on a range of really, really fundamental policy and political questions,” he said citing issues such as the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea.
“There’s only so much the relationship can improve when the fundamentals are so bad.”
Penny Wong released a statement late on Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China: “Australia remains deeply concerned by the continuing erosion of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy.”
Dr Herscovitch said that while there had been a dialling down of rhetoric from Peter Dutton freely drawing comparison between China and Nazi Germany, there were a number of issues, including the outcome of the review of the Port of Darwin lease, that could worsen relations even further.
“The Chinese government is seeking […] whether it be […] through economic support to build up alliances to undermine what has historically been the Western alliance in places like the Indo-Pacific,” Mr Albanese told the NATO gathering in Madrid.
In an editorial, the China Daily newspaper said Mr Albanese was a “greenhorn” on diplomacy and been lured by NATO into seeing China as an “adversarial straw man” and said Beijing’s “goodwill” towards his new government had not been reciprocated.
Hopes that relations might improve were elevated after a two-year block on official communications between the countries was lifted when Defence Minister Richard Marles met his Chinese counterpart while at a summit in Singapore.
Beijing’s Canberra envoy, Xiao Qian, recently met the architect of the PM’s election campaign, Paul Erickson, and spoke publicly of an “opportunity of possible improvement of our bilateral relations.”
UWA Professor Gordon Flake said any repair would be a nonstarter under current Chinese leadership
“China at this point has a demonstrably low tolerance for discussion of our differences,” said Professor Flake who heads the Perth USAsia Centre.
“The reset was on the Chinese side, about their expectation that the new government gave a chance for Australia to repent. We didn’t see that.”