Analysts say Australia’s relationship with China is unlikely to improve under the new left-wing government in Canberra, although they say a decision by Pacific Island nations to resist a security pact with Beijing has signaled a strategic shift in regional dynamics for Canberra and the Quad, an informal grouping of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.
Some supporters in Australia of better relations with China were initially buoyed by the May 21 Australian Labor Party victory that made Anthony Albanese prime minister. However, while Bart Edes, professor of practice at McGill University Montreal said “more diplomacy” with China is likely, as is less “bombastic messaging and provocation,” fundamentally “the policy is not really going to change.”
Australia has been vocal in its criticism of China’s handling of Taiwan, Hong Kong, ethnic Uyghurs, the disputed South China Sea, and Beijing’s alleged meddling in Australia’s political process, which resulted in laws passed in 2018 targeting foreign interference.
Relations reached a new low in April 2021 when then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed an independent international inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak, prompting China to impose sanctions on the imports of Australian goods.
“I don’t think an election will really reverse the overall direction in the Australia-China relationship,” Hunter Marsten, a researcher with Australia National University told VOA. “I don’t think they have improved already. It’s hard to say whether they are going to improve.”
Immediately after his victory, Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong flew to Tokyo and reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to the Quad, with leaders of India, Japan, and the United States.
Wong then flew to Fiji, where her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, had hoped to sign a trade and security pact with 10 Pacific islands nations whose leaders have long complained of being ignored by longstanding allies, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The main issue remains a lack of progress on climate change. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama tweeted: “Our greatest concern isn’t geopolitics – it’s climate change,” adding he had a “wonderful meeting” with Wong.
Marsten said Australia was “very much relieved” that the security deal – seen as a bid by Beijing to wrest control of the Pacific region – had faltered after island leaders failed to reach a consensus, saying the deal lacked transparency and that it risked heightening political tensions.
“There was some expectation that the deal would fail to materialize,” he said. “The idea you can lump all the Pacific islands together into just sort of one broad community, to work with as a single partner, a cohesive unit to strike deals with, was unrealistic.”
Australia has also emphasized traditional ties, particularly with the United States, dating back to World War II, when the Pacific Islands were subjected to some of the war’s heaviest fighting.
“Penny Wong’s trip to Fiji shows the new government wants to take seriously the views of Pacific Islands exactly to be a more trustworthy partner – which can be interpreted as a smarter form of competition with Beijing,” Marsten said, ahead of Wong’s additional visits to Samoa and Tonga.
He said Albanese’s participation in the Quad meeting indicated “a great deal of continuity” in backing U.S. President Joe Biden and Morrison's conservative defense policies, including the AUKUS deal enabling Australia to acquire nuclear submarines, another thorn in China’s side.
“Some of those structural fault lines are still in place,” Marsten said, regarding AUKUS and Australia’s difficult relationship with China.
“I think there are some fundamental divisions at play here, partly the economic coercion and some of the legislation dating back to Chinese influence in Australia’s politics from 2018.”
Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with Hong Kong-based A2 Global Risk, said the Pacific Islands had been ignored by larger regional players, especially regarding climate change and their concerns over rising sea levels.
But by engaging China, initially with a security pact with the Solomon Islands announced in April, the Pacific Islands were prompting a proxy fight with the interests of the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, France and the United Kingdom also at stake.
“The Aussies, as always, are kind of stuck in the middle,” Greenwood said, adding that a proxy fight for influence would escalate, directed by soft power financial inducements, such as education and scholarships, and no-strings direct aid.
“The ability of the U.S. and Australia and indeed Taiwan to recalibrate relationships with the Pacific Islands is immense and I’m sure it’s ongoing and I’m sure it's being done quietly, below the radar and will continue to do so,” he said.
Albanese campaigned on pushing climate change to the top of the political agenda while “reengaging” the Pacific Islands and countering the initial security deal announced in April between Beijing and the Solomon Islands, which embarrassed the Morrison government.
“Being caught on the back foot with the Solomon Islands deal is just one of the latest examples of Canberra’s awakening to the need for a change in its Pacific Islands strategy,” Marsten said.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about Beijing, and Edes said there were limitations as to how much the relationship between Australia and China could be improved given the fundamental differences, whether Australia is led by the conservative Liberal Party or the ALP.
“The short story is I see this government trying to put kind of a floor under the relationship, so rescuing it from a free fall, that started about two years ago when Morrison called for this study of the origins of COVID and that (annoyed) Beijing,” he said.