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The Year of Repair: a closer focus on the Sino-Australia Relationship

· Emily Clifford,China,Diplomacy,Analysis

In recent months, the Australian Government has been struggling to maintain and cultivate a positive political relationship with China, who remains economically important as our largest trading partner. Having been returned to power, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be tasked with carefully considering how he can repair Australia’s relationship with China, after several decisions that have negatively impacted the Sino-Australia pact. In particular, Australia’s newly implemented foreign interference laws coupled with the widely publicized ban on China’s Huawei 5G network due to national security concerns. The move was reinforced by United States (US) President Donald Trump, adding Huawei Technologies Co Ltd to the US Trade Blacklist and barring the company from supplying 5G due to the national security risk, demonstrating the lengths Trump will go to ensure ‘American’s [are] able to trust that our data and infrastructure are secure’.

The fragile relationship between China and the United States and growing tensions with Australia in recent years exacerbates a tri-lateral political quagmire where interests are intertwined, and diplomatic protocol is paramount. Before his election win, Morrison made headlines in May for describing the US as a ‘friend’ and China as a ‘customer’, a move perceived by China as Australia siding with its Western ally.

China’s complex relationship with the West is deeply rooted in history, tying back to the Opium Wars and Century of Humiliation under Western occupation. The Sino-US history has been characterized by mutual distrust and competition for power, which, in part carries over into the Sino-Australia relationship, compounded by the historic White Australia Policy and the continued perception of closeness in the Australian-American allegiance. Since Trump has come into power, diplomatic faux pas have further tarnished the relationship during political negotiations such as for the South China Sea, public support for Taiwan and when China’s impact on the American economy was described as ‘rape’. In 2018 Trump announced his intention to fix China’s ‘longtime abuse of the broken international system and unfair practices’, sparking a bilateral trade war. When Trump increased the tariff rates on $200 billion worth of Chinese exports, Chinese President Xi Jinping retaliated by raising its tariff on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods. Tensions between the powers continue to escalate. One of the key underlying issues with Trump’s relationship with Xi, is that Trump seems to be despondent to the importance of long-established diplomatic protocol, which is paramount in cultivating meaningful and lasting relations with China.

Morrison’s announcement of the $44 million into the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations to strengthen the Sino-Australia relationship and the appointment of a China specialist as Australian’s ambassador to increase engagement in Beijing is a good step towards improving this relationship. Moving forward, it will be increasingly important for Morrison to acknowledge the importance of the traditions and follow traditional protocols. Such diplomacy is governed by conventions that ensure etiquette and common sense which fosters effective communication between world leaders. The Chinese government is also strongly influenced by Confucian tradition, still prevalent in contemporary Chinese politics and society, which links traditions of ceremony to virtue and humility. These long-standing ideals are perceived as being of upmost importance in China, as such customs encourage respect and honour that are crucial to the maintenance and enhancement of strong social relationships ‘guanxi’. Following these protocols will be of paramount importance in maintaining relationships with both China and the US forging diplomatic relations based on mutual trust and respect instead of mutual distrust and uncertainty.

Emily Clifford is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.


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