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Decoding China: Beijing's cautious approach to Australia

Dang Yuan
March 22, 2024

A death sentence against an Australian and the tightening of Hong Kong's security law overshadowed the Chinese foreign minister's visit to Australia. Nevertheless, China seeks a common denominator with Canberra.

Australian and Chinese officials sit at a long table in Canberra on March 20
The Chinese foreign minister's trip this week was the most senior-level visit of a Chinese official to Australia since 2017Image: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

The 21st century will belong to the Pacific, and the economic and political rise of China as a Pacific power means that Beijing and Australia will need to seek out better means of cooperation. 

Bilateral relations between China and Australia have been frosty in recent years, but thawed after Anthony Albanese became Australian prime minister in 2022.

After coronavirus travel restrictions were lifted, Albanese traveled to China with Foreign Minister Penny Wong in autumn 2023 to bring about a new start.

And Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's trip to Australia this week was the most senior-level visit of a Chinese official since Wang's last visit in 2017.

The reason for Wang's trip this time around was to prepare for a planned official visit by Chinese Premier Li Qiang later this year. However, there were plenty of other touchy topics up for discussion.

In late February, Yang Hengjun, an Australian pro-democracy blogger, received a suspended death sentence from a Beijing court for espionage.

Yang, who was born in China and received Australian citizenship in 2002, is accused of spying in mainland China on behalf of Taiwan's intelligence service and was arrested in 2019. The blogger had repeatedly and harshly criticized the Chinese government.

"Australia was shocked when the death sentence was announced," said Australia's Foreign Minister Wong after the meeting with her Chinese counterpart. "The Australian government will continue to stand up for Yang."

The planned amendment of Hong Kong's legal system by the city's Beijing-backed legislature to include harsh penalties for vaguely defined offenses like "subversion and treason" has also been sharply criticized as a further erosion of civil liberties.

It will "further erode rights and freedoms," while violating international obligations with "far-reaching consequences," said the Australian foreign minister.

Yang Hengjun pictured in 2010
Yang Hengjun, an Australian pro-democracy blogger, received a suspended death sentence in late February for espionageImage: Zhan Min/HPIC/dpa/picture alliance/dpa

Using trade as bait

Like New Zealand, which Wang had previously visited, Australia is part of the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance, which also includes the US, the UK and Canada. All member states feel unsettled by the rise of China. Australia is still attempting a balancing act between political interests in this democratic alliance and economic interests based on a trade relationship with China.

In 2018, as a representative of the Australian Labor Party, Albanese told a group of Chinese business leaders, in Mandarin, that "expanding relations with China is in Australia's national interest."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang is now putting these economic interests on the line in an attempt to bring Australia onto a more friendly course towards Beijing.

Shortly before Wang's departure, China announced its intention to suspend the punitive tariffs on wine imports from Australia. In March 2021, Beijing imposed the tariffs of up to 220% on Australian fine wine for five years. Canberra had filed a complaint against this measure with the World Trade Organization.

Australia is now hoping that these hurdles will also be lowered for the export of other foodstuffs for the growing middle class in China, which is keen to consume.

Australia currently generates 80% of its export surplus from China. "We are very proud of our lobster and beef. It would also be beneficial for Chinese customers if these products could access the Chinese market without restrictions," said Wong, who also has Chinese roots.

AUKUS deal: China warns against "path of error and danger"

Demanding distance from the US

As the US continues to try to counter Beijing's rise, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang said during his visit that he wants Australia to work on a China policy that is more "independent" of Washington.

"Australia should abide by the principle of independence. Relations between China and Australia are not directed against third parties. They should also not be influenced or even disturbed by third parties," he underlined.

"The biggest significance of the meeting is the further stabilization of relations," said David Speers, commentator for the Australian public broadcaster ABC. "I think Beijing already has a lot of goodies in the bag — like the lifting of trade restrictions."

Ten years ago, Australia and China agreed on a "comprehensive strategic partnership." Wang now wants to renew this partnership.

"China and Australia succeeded in breaking the ice through joint efforts. We should now work together to make the partnership more mature, more stable and more fruitful," said Wang.

However, his optimism has clearly not really been well received.

In a 14-minute press conference after meeting her Chinese counterpart, Australian Foreign Minister Wong remained detached and sober, saying twice: "China remains China, Australia remains Australia."

"Decoding China" is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.

This article was originally written in German.