Chinese-Australian relations have had a rollercoaster year in 2018 – China power
Chinese-Australian relations have had a rollercoaster year in 2018.
As Beijing looked to expand its global position, particularly with an increased presence in the Pacific, Australia sat up and took notice.
Here we take a look back at 10 key policy moves, diplomatic clashes and deals that have shaped an interesting year in the complex Australia-China relationship.
1. Canberra passes the anti-foreign intervention laws
Amid growing concerns about Beijing’s influence in Australian politics, the Government passed controversial legislation in June to limit and control the influence of overseas players in Australian affairs.
The new laws strengthened foreign espionage offences, and forced people working for foreign companies and governments to declare their activities.
All foreign donations were also banned, including from Chinese businesses that are by far the largest foreign donors in Australian politics.
Foreign Ministers Julie Bishop and Wang Yi are rumoured to have had a heated discussion about the laws. (AAP: Mick Tsikas)
Beijing was furious, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang calling on Australia and other countries to “abandon the Cold War mentality and better promote mutual exchanges and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and equal treatment.”
Reports also suggested that then-foreign minister Julie Bishop had a heated conversation around the laws and China’s influence in Australia with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of a G20 conference in Argentina.
Ms Bishop denied the reports about the meeting, which she had earlier said was “very warm”. But Mr Wang was quoted as telling Ms Bishop and Australia to “take off the tinted glasses [and] see China’s development from a positive perspective” if it really wanted to get relations back on track.
“Tinted glasses” is Chinese diplomatic shorthand for what it sees as Western bias.
2. Qantas among airlines pressured by China over Taiwan
China doubled down on its efforts to police how international companies refer to Taiwan. (Supplied)
In April, China’s aviation regulator gave three dozen airlines, including Qantas, a May 25 deadline to remove references on their websites and in other material that suggest Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are countries independent of China.
The White House described the move as “Orwellian nonsense”.
Qantas was afforded an extension on the deadline, but eventually bowed to pressure from Beijing, referring to Taiwan as a Chinese territory, rather than a nation.
Officially, Australia sides with Beijing and considers self-ruling Taiwan to be part of China, so changing the website reference back echoed Australia’s official position on Taiwan.
But despite the Government’s policy on Taiwan, Ms Bishop was firmly against Beijing’s attempts to pressure Qantas, telling the ABC that “private companies should be free to conduct their usual business operations free from political pressure of governments.”
Jie Chen of the University of Western Australia said while the result does show China’s global influence is growing, many see the demand as little more than “a show”.
“[This action] shows China overreacts in gesture, but has little impact in sustenance,” he said.
3. Former Rio Tinto executive released from prison
On July 4, 55-year-old Australian citizen and former Rio Tinto executive Hu Shitai was released from Qingpu Prison on the outskirts of Shanghai, one year early.
A chief iron ore negotiator for Rio Tinto during the mining boom, Mr Hu was arrested along with three other China-based staff.
He was convicted in a closed three-day trial of accepting $14 million in bribes and stealing trade secrets, with the judge sentencing him to 10 years in jail.
While Mr Hu did admit to some of the charges, Australia’s then-foreign minister Stephen Smith said China failed to provide clarity on the issue of commercial secrets by not allowing Australian officials into the court.
“That’s very regrettable and that leaves, I think, a series of unanswered questions not just for Australia but for the international business community,” he said.
The arrests and subsequent trials were seen as a watershed moment for Western businesses operating in the sometimes-opaque legal environment of China.
The release has raised questions about why successive Australian governments were not more vocal about the lengthy jail term.
4. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea
HMAS Toowoomba was among the ships challenged by the Chinese military while on deployment in South-East Asia. (Supplied: Royal Australian Navy)
The status of islands in the South China Sea has been a key topic of contention in China’s global relations in recent years, and 2018 was no exception.
At the end of April, the ABC revealed that three Australian warships were challenged by the Chinese military as they crossed the controversial South China Sea.
Then in May, when it was reported that China installed a missile system in the Nansha Islands, Ms Bishop joined a chorus of international voices in warning Beijing not to militarise the South China Sea.
In early September, Australia’s Navy Fleet Commander delivered a speech at the nation’s largest sea exercise, calling on the participating international defence forces — including China’s navy — to respect “freedom of navigation” and promote “free and open international order.”
Later in the month while in Canberra, Wang Jingguo, the head of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, played down the view that if Australia also conducts a “free sailing” operation in the region, Sino-Australian relations will be damaged.
5. China blocks ABC website
In what came as a surprise move in August, China’s cyber security regulator decided to abruptly block the ABC’s website from Chinese servers.
An official from the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission told the ABC that the site had been blocked for “violating China’s laws and regulations”, but did not say why.
The official added that “China’s internet is fully open”.
Access to the ABC site stopped the day after the Australian Government announced rules that would block two Chinese telecommunications companies from participating in the roll-out of the 5G infrastructure network.
6. Huawei is banned from participating in 5G construction
Huawei was one of the two companies blocked from participating in the 5G roll-out as they were “likely subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflict with Australian law”.
Under Chinese law, companies are required to provide information to the Government and participate in state espionage if they are ordered to do so.
Huawei has insisted that it is a 100 per cent private company that is not influenced by the strings of the Communist party.
The decision was a major blow for the tech giant and prompted China’s Foreign Ministry to urge Australia to “abandon ideological prejudice”.
Since then, Huawei has continued to draw international attention, particularly with the recent US-ordered arrest of executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada.
7. Australia and the US jointly resist China’s Pacific influence
In order to counter China’s rising influence in the Pacific, Australia has stepped up its aid and cooperation with a range of countries.
In July, Australia signed a deal with Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to provide an underwater internet cable system between the three countries, edging out a similar proposal from Huawei.
Then at the APEC meeting in November, in addition to increasing Australia’s financial assistance to the region, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to open diplomatic offices in Palau, Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and Cook Islands, and strengthen defence cooperation in the region.
With US assistance, Australia is also set to partner with PNG to redevelop the joint Lombrum naval base on Manus Island.
Linda Jakobson, founding director and CEO of independent think tank China Matters, said Australia was overwhelmingly the largest donor in the South Pacific, and as “a rising power”, China was expected to assert its influence “through infrastructure projects and military co-operation” with South Pacific island nations.
“I think there is room for cooperation which has not be explored between Australia and China in the South Pacific,” she said.
“We shouldn’t be naive … Australia can’t in dollar terms compete with China on every single project, but I do think Australia has a long-standing relationship with all of the South Pacific nations.”
8. Australia pays attention to Uyghur human rights issue
Reports and allegations of gross human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang province have captured the world’s attention in 2018.
The United Nations estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities are allegedly detained in the region, and an ABC investigation and analysis of satellite imagery suggests that China has drastically expanded at least 28 camps and facilities in recent years.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she had a “comprehensive and frank discussion” with the Chinese Foreign Minister on the human rights issue in Xinjiang during her visit to China in November.
Labor has also condemned the alleged abuses, calling on the Government to increase pressure on Beijing over its actions in the province.
But China has denied all international claims that it is detaining citizens in camps, claiming that authorities had simply cracked down on “violent terrorist activities” in the region and that other nations should ignore “gossip”.
After initial blanket denials, Chinese officials in October released details of a network of ‘vocational training’ centres which they said were needed to counter terrorism and extremism.
9. Victoria and China sign ‘Belt and Road’ MOU
In the lead-up to the state election, Premier Daniel Andrews made Victoria the first Australian state to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on China’s controversial “One Belt One Road” initiative (BRI), in the hope that it would bring more trade and employment opportunities.
The move in Victoria shocked many people, with the Labor Government keeping the contents of the agreement secret for weeks.
Once it was released publicly, the deal actually proved to reveal very little, simply stating that Victoria and China would look to cooperate closely on a range of projects in the future without locking in either party to anything concrete.
So far, 68 countries including New Zealand have signed the BRI, which marks China’s ambitious plan to expand its influence in the region and beyond.
Officially, Australia remains unwilling to participate in the divisive BRI, which lead to Mr Andrews receiving heavy criticism from the Prime Minister for entering into foreign affairs.
But Ms Jakobson, of China Matters, said there had been “too many misunderstandings” of the Belt and Road Initiative in Australia.
“The initiative is set on a project-by-project basis,” she said.
“It does not suggest the Victorian Government have committed to do anything that would endanger the national interest of Australia.”
10. Australia-China relations ease as year ends
Ms Payne visited China in early November to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with the ABC’s China correspondent Bill Birtles describing the meeting as full of positives, jokes and “smiles everywhere” — a stark contrast to earlier visits by Ms Bishop.
Ms Jakobson said for the first half of 2018, there was a real concern in Canberra about the relationship going into a free-fall.
“Ironically, the change of government [in Australia] hastened the restoring of a more balanced and constructive bilateral relationship,” she said.
“So we end the year looking at the relationship which has been reset in many ways to a balanced bilateral relationship, one that acknowledges there are differences in views.”
Looking forward to 2019, many China watchers believe Sino-Australia relations will stay on track and remain stable.
Heading into federal elections next year, Ms Jakobson said China relations were low on the agenda for the Morrison Government as it struggled with “very poor poll results”.
Amid recent tensions including the trade war, Dr Chen said the direction of China and Australia’s bilateral relationship would also depend on how relations between Beijing and Australia’s major ally Washington unfold.