Can the dragon and kangaroo fly together?
The relationship between China and Australia has been strained because of a series of bilateral frictions such as the Rio Tinto business espionage case, the Dalai Lama issue and Australia¡¯s attitude toward Xinjiang separatist Rebiya Kadeer. This development has come as a surprise, especially because Sino-Australian ties had been progressing smoothly on the political, economic, cultural and educational fronts after the end of the Cold War.
Australia has benefited greatly from bilateral trade. Australia¡¯s official statistics show that during 2008-09, bilateral trade reached A$83 billion (about $76.1 billion). Australia¡¯s exports to China rose from 2008 to 2009, that is, during the height of the global financial crisis. The increase in exports to China has helped Australia weather the global financial storm and fueled its economic growth. And China has become Australia¡¯s largest trade partner and the largest export target.
China and Australia are important investment partners, too. Till 2008, Australians had invested $5.82 billion in 8,954 projects in China, and China¡¯s non-financial direct investment in Australia was about $3 billion.
But their trade relations have been marred by friction, because of several factors. China¡¯s fast-paced economic growth is largely dependent on the effective supply of strategic resources. Since the demand for coal and iron ore in China is very high, some shortsighted Australian entrepreneurs, with the backing of some politicians, threaten to raise their prices not only to make more money, but also to thwart Beijing¡¯s fast-paced economic growth.
Recently, China and Australia agreed to negotiate iron ore prices in the first quarter of every year. But some Australians still believe the agreement between Chinalco and Rio Tinto could pose a threat to Australia¡¯s resource industries and national security.
China is thousands of miles away from Australia and, hence, does not pose a security threat to it (or any other country for that matter). But Australia supposes that regional safety is connected with the rise of China. It assumes, and wrongly so, that the rise of China as a military power will upset the regional power balance. Some Australians say China¡¯s rise may create a spillover effect and ultimately pose a danger to Australia.
The Australia Defense White Paper, released recently, specifically mentions China¡¯s development and regional position and says it is a potential reason why Australia should modernize its military. Since Australia is a big power in the South Pacific region, the growing relationship between China and other South Pacific island nations have unnecessarily raised Australia¡¯s worries, and helped the ¡°China Threat¡± theory gain a foothold in Australia.
Although Australia is a country of immigrants and a pluralistic society in the South Pacific, it is Western in its thought and action. Like Britain and the United States, it suffers from superiority complex when it comes to Asian countries. It shows great interest in human rights, freedom and democracy in China, but knows little about China¡¯s political and economic reform.
Many Australian media outlets see China as a dictatorial, autocratic, adventurous and aggressive country. Australia¡¯s attitude toward the Dalai Lama and separatist activities in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region is ambiguous.
Sino-Australian ties have been strained partly because Australia has failed to find a proper strategic position.
The problem with Australia is that it tries to play the ¡°bridge¡± between East and West but feels confused by the rise of China. On one hand, it hopes China will become a strong pillar of regional stability. On the other, it is upset with China¡¯s rapid rise, and even worried that China could threaten its interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia wants to cooperate with East Asian countries and share the spoils, but it also wants to design its own blueprint for Asian regional cooperation.
As an Asia-Pacific power, Australia¡¯s competence is not compatible with its ambition. Therefore, it would be wise for it to cooperate with the rest of the world and avoid confrontation.
Strained relations, however, don¡¯t change the general cooperative situation between China and Australia. In fact, they should avoid turning their differences into structural contradictions. The two countries¡¯ leaders and governments should build strategic mutual trust to create a favorable situation and achieve long-term gains.
They have to take measures to encourage more academic exchanges between their scholars and members of their think tanks, and start track-two diplomacy to explore ways to improve bilateral ties. They should take effective measures to promote non-governmental communications in fields such as education, technology, culture and sport.
If the two countries take such a course, China¡¯s image in the Australian media will become more real and Australians will finally realize that China is an opportunity rather than a threat.
The author is a research fellow with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.