China is following with concern Australia’s growing military capabilities.
“As Australia distances itself from China, Beijing thinks it (Australia) is moving closer to the United States,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Over the past decade, Australia has strengthened its military. China is particularly concerned about Australia’s partnership with the United States, the world’s largest military power, to control Chinese naval expansion, experts say.
Already troubled, the once-thriving Sino-Australian relationship took another hit last week after Australia, the United States and Britain signed a tripartite security partnership. The deal, called AUKUS, will enable the sharing of sophisticated military technology and equip Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines.
The AUKUS deal is the latest in a series of events that have strained relations between China and Australia. Researchers refer to the three prime ministers with anti-Chinese leanings elected in Australia since 2013, along with Canberra’s response to Chinese interests in the country, from which China seeks precious supplies of iron ore and coal.
“I think the combination of these factors led to the deterioration of relations between Australia and China,” says researcher Oh. “There could be a confrontation between Australian and Chinese ships, say, in the South China Sea, which would further worsen relations between them.”
Disputes over Australia’s coveted natural resources, US military influence in Asia-Pacific and leaders with conservative political views in Canberra are fueling weakening relations with China, experts in both countries say.
Decades of decline
Sino-Australian relations seemed to have a positive future when former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who speaks the Mandarin dialect of the Chinese language, took office in 2007, to the delight of Chinese leaders.
Two years later, relations began to deteriorate after the failure of the Chinese aluminum corporation Chinalco to try to buy Australian mining giant Rio Tinto and the visit to Australia of a leader of the Uighur independence movement, says Fujian Li. researcher at the research institute “Future Directions International”, based in Perth.
The Chinese were outraged when Australian mining firms raised the price of iron ore, undermining Chinese interests, according to an article by Mr. Li published in May 2021. These incidents were “an illustration that China and Australia disagreed with. each other in strategic, economic and political aspects “, he said.
Later, Australia did not allow Chinese telecom giant Huawei to participate in a national infrastructure construction project using 5G technology. Last year Australia, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, called for an investigation in China into the origin of Covid-19.
China responded by refusing to accept timber from four Australian states and blocking dozens of large Australian coal vessels outside two Chinese ports worth $ 700 million. Chinese importers had been warned since November to avoid Australian coal.
“The situation escalated significantly in 2020, when Beijing began to impose strict trade measures on Australia’s major exports to China,” said Rajiv Biswas, an IHS Markit economist for the Asia-Pacific region.
China’s biggest concern
China is primarily concerned about Australia’s alliance with the United States, Beijing’s rival superpower, analysts say.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian attacked the two countries at a news conference last week.
“The US and Australia are fighting together, deliberately discrediting China for their geopolitical interests, interfering in China’s internal affairs and challenging relations between the countries of the region,” he said. “China strongly expresses its dissatisfaction and opposition to these efforts.”
In August, the Chinese embassy in Australia acknowledged the “difficult situation in bilateral relations”. Three years ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had urged Australia to increase cooperation with China instead of hindering it.
U.S. warships now pass regularly, 10 times in 2020, for example, across the South China Sea, a waterway that Beijing says belongs to it, despite this claim being dismissed by an international tribunal five years ago. Washington has demanded that Canberra join other Western allies in defending freedom of navigation.
Expert Oh says China is “concerned” by Australia-US military cooperation, the Canberra leaders’ ideology and Australia’s growing ties with Southeast Asian countries, including those with territorial claims to the South China Sea.
What is expected in the future?
More Chinese economic sanctions on Australia are possible, analysts say. However, targeting iron and coal could reduce China’s access to needed resources, some other experts say.
Australia is starting to diversify exports to Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia, where there is more room for growth, analysts say.
“Australia has a strategic role in (Asia-Pacific), with strong ties to both Asian and Western countries,” said Stuart Orr, director of the School of Business at the Melbourne Institute of Technology.
But the size of China’s economy could force Australia to be more cautious, Biswas said.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner in the field of exports and imports. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, by 2020, 31% of Australia’s global trade exchanges were with China, reaching $ 177.4 billion.
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