National Commentaries

“AUKUS, Australia, and China”

A View from the United States


From an American perspective, Australia’s turn away from China in recent years and its embrace of AUKUS in 2021 are considered appropriate and welcome responses to both China’s more aggressive regional behavior and its provocations directed at the US ally. While initiated by a backlash to Beijing’s actions, Canberra’s reassessment resonated with Washington’s message that Chinese expansionism was a problem for regional security rather than a result of Sino-American competition for hegemony. In China, where Australian failure to comply with the PRC’s wishes had typically been portrayed as instigated by American pressure, there were concerns that Canberra might in fact be acting on its own initiative.

In late November 2021, Beijing’s Global Times lamented Australia’s rapid change from a land of peace in the South Pacific to a path of belligerence.1 While the paper was correct about a big change having occurred, the Sino-Australian relationship had not been totally problem free, and the change should be seen as gradual rather than abrupt. For more than a decade, there had been misgivings about Chinese companies’ purchases of Australian mining assets, raising concerns that the country was becoming an economic colony of the People’s Republic. The 2010 conviction of Australian-Chinese businessman Stern Hu, the chief iron ore negotiator for Rio Tinto mines, for industrial spying added to these, but the case was complicated and, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, immediately after the conviction Rio Tinto threw itself into rebuilding its relationship with China. 2

The default position was that occasional frictions were to be expected and that business was good for both sides. Still, when in 2015 the government of Australia’s Northern Territory agreed to give China a 99-year leasehold for the port of Darwin, where a contingent of US marines was stationed, and shortly after China had established a foothold in Djibouti, on the horn of Africa and coincidentally next to an American military deployment, there was a parliamentary inquiry. Criticism that the corruption-plagued and unpopular government of the Northern Territory had rushed through the sale in order to raise money before an election was, however, rebuffed by the country’s defense secretary by saying that the Chinese could find out anything they wanted by “sitting on a stool in the fish-and-chip shop on the wharf” and observing the vessels that entered the harbor.3

Momentum was, nonetheless, building. In 2018, the Malcolm Turnbull government banned telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network on grounds of national security as “likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government.”4 In the following year, a joint investigation by Four Corner and Fairfax Media exposed what the report termed a campaign by the Chinese government and its proxies to infiltrate Australia’s political system and influence its media, particularly its Chinese-language media. Its targets also included universities, local student and community groups, and some of the country’s leading politicians. A member of parliament who had close financial ties with a billionaire Chinese businessman resigned in disgrace after it was revealed that he had warned his patron that the patron’s dealings were being investigated. While in parliament, he had backed China’s position on the South China Sea contrary to both his government’s and his own party’s position. Canberra subsequently rejected the billionaire’s citizenship application and cancelled his permanent residency permit. 5 Several other politicians were also shown to have received money from PRC conduits in return for supporting PRC positions.

As China continued its expansionist activities in the South China Sea and the company that had leased the port of Darwin was found to have close links to both the Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army, the issue regained salience, with one critic charging that the Northern Territory government had “farm[ed] out the risk to everyone in Australia over 99 years to save you some money in the early 20-teens.”6

Fresh stimulus was added to this discontent in the spring of 2020 when Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for an independent review of the origins of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.7 China’s deputy ambassador responded by comparing her request to Brutus stabbing Caesar, “like a knife in the feelings of the Chinese people,” which might cause them “to lose their taste for Australian wine and beef, among other things.”8 Indeed Beijing imposed trade barriers on the import of not only wine and beef, but barley, lobster, and coal as well. Such economic warfare techniques had served China well in the past: the Kirchner government of Argentina withdrew its complaint to the World Trade Organization of Chinese dumping after the PRC stopped purchasing Argentine soybeans, and Japan released the fishing boat captain who had rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels when Beijing threatened to withhold rare earth shipments and began to subject its imports into China to meticulous inspection procedures.

Australia, however, hung tough. In the end, the sanctions had limited effect and actually seemed to be counterproductive in their effects both on Australian public opinion and on sales, since Australian producers were generally able to find other markets for their goods. Between late 2020 and April 2021, exports of the sanctioned items to China fell in annualized terms by $10 billion but rose by $14 billion to other areas such as Saudi Arabia and India.9 China’s acute energy shortage in 2021 meant that Australian coal was valued regardless of political differences.

A series of tension-raising incidents followed the imposition of trade barriers. When the Chinese consul-general of Brisbane praised the patriotism of Chinese students in Australia for violently confronting other students who supported Hong Kong democracy activists, Foreign Minister Payne warned that the government would not tolerate foreign interference in the exercise of free speech in Australia,10 and Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared his support for Vietnam’s efforts to ensure a free flow of trade through the South China Sea.11 Shortly thereafter, Beijing denied visas to two members of parliament scheduled to attend a study tour, who had criticized China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority, with the Chinese media advising them to “repent and redress.”12 And a few months later, the editor of Global Times described Australia as “gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoe. Sometimes you just have to find a stone to rub it off.”13 Correspondents to the Australian Broadcasting Network and the Australian Financial Review had to be evacuated from Beijing and Shanghai respectively after being questioned about spying activities. Their departure meant that, for the first time since the mid-1970s, there were no accredited Australian journalists in the PRC, with China declining to issue new visas.14

Australian government responses included suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong because of the national security law imposed by China,15  the non-renewal of China’s contract for access to a strategic space tracking station in Western Australia,16 Canberra’s support for India in its border dispute with the PRC—which Chinese media described as Australia “moving one step closer to the edge of the cliff”17—blocking a dairy unit’s sale to China,18 and passing laws to allow the federal government to halt transactions with foreign governments that would preclude another incident like the Northern Territory’s lease of the port of Darwin.19 Its first act after passage was to cancel an agreement the state of Victoria had made with China for cooperation on the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 20 Newly passed Magnitsky-style laws allow Australia to ban human rights abusers and cyber attackers from Australia and from placing their assets in the country.21

Ties with allies were shored up as well. Australia joined with Japan and India to create a supply chain that would ease dependence on China,22 attended the first formal meeting of the Quad—with India, Japan, and the US—and cancelled its agreement for conventionally powered French submarines in favor of an agreement with Britain and the US to build nuclear-powered submarines.23 As Beijing knew, the nuclear-powered submarines have a greater range and, therefore, ability to operate in areas that would allow them to challenge China’s claim for dominance in the South China Sea.24

In November, the Chinese embassy in Canberra deliberately leaked to Australian media a list of 14 grievances it had with the country, including the cancellation of the agreement with Victoria, unfriendly reports on China by Australian media, the early dawn search and “reckless seizure” of Chinese journalists’ homes and properties without charges or explanations, and “thinly veiled allegations of cyberattacks without any evidence.” Lest these be misconstrued as negotiating points, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian cited an old Chinese proverb that “he who ties the bell [on a tiger] must be responsible for loosening it”—in other words, the responsibility for better relations rested entirely with Australia.25 Later in the month, a Chinese official tweeted a doctored photograph of a grinning Australia soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, with Morrison demanding but not getting an apology. 26

Responding to increasingly aggressive Chinese actions against Taiwan, Foreign Minister Peter Dutton stated that Australia would join the US to defend Taiwan if the PRC attacked it. The PRC would not be satisfied by Taiwan’s fall: Japan’s Senkaku Islands were its next target, and it would expand from there to transform the regional order in a direct threat to his country. Australia’s response, he continued, must be to boost its military capabilities and stand with allies to resist Beijing’s aggressive behavior. Currently, the PRC “see[s] us as tributary states.”27 Were the affirmation of support for Taiwan not enough to anger Beijing, the linking of the Taiwan issue with that of Japan and the region generally must have generated additional angst. The foreign affairs editor of The Australian went even further than Dutton, stating that the US would cede its role as the dominant global power, China would encourage appeasement parties throughout Asia, and China would expand its burgeoning military base program in the South Pacific, on Australia’s doorstep.28

Whatever their private thoughts on these statements, Chinese media characterized Dutton as a “none too bright minister in an incredibly pedestrian and what many see as a corrupt government” who was saber rattling in an effort to amass votes ahead of the next election.29 His statement about increasing defense preparedness was treated with derision, with one Chinese general describing Australia as “weak, racist, self-destructive […] motivated by white supremacy.”30 When opposition to Chinese influence was a factor in riots in the Solomon Islands, China accused Australia of having been behind them.31

There is much speculation on how long the current bad relations can last. Zhao Lijian’s tiger metaphor and other statements vowing to absorb Taiwan by force, if need be, and its strong assertions of sovereign rights in the South and East China sea seem to indicate that Beijing has no intention of compromising.  As for the issue of an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus that triggered the recent round of recriminations, neither Australia nor the rest of the world is apt to get a satisfactory answer. The unclassified version of the American intelligence community’s investigation concluded that “Beijing […] continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the US.”32 In time, assuming the abatement of the pandemic, this question may lose salience. Since there is little that any foreign nation can do to counter human rights abuses in areas like Hong Kong and Xinjiang, so may those issues as well.

Moreover, not all Australians agree that China constitutes a threat, Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong of the Labor Party has accused Dutton of “amping up” the threat of war, 33 and Australian academic Sun Wanning has accused the Australian media of anti-China bias.34 Hugh White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, though granting that the PRC government is far from ideal, argues that Beijing “holds most of the cards and that there is no alternative but to adjust to China’s power as a stark new reality,”35 Although conceding that a regional order dominated by China may be distasteful, White believes that it is outweighed by the moral imperative to avoid war. America, he continued, is unlikely to come to Australia’s aid in time of war and is, in any case, unlikely to win a war with China, with or without Australian help.36

However, such views are in a distinct minority at present. Public opinion polls indicate that popular and elite opinion largely agree in negative opinions of China. There appears to be little sympathy for Hugh White’s position and, although he has some influence in the Labor Party, it has not adopted any of his policy recommendations thus far.37 This could change were Beijing to cease to push its territorial claims so aggressively. Its leadership may judge that the domestic popularity of the confrontational rhetoric that has been termed “wolf warrior” diplomacy may be less important than the damage it is doing to China internationally. Currently, neither seems to be happening. It has been suggested that the present state of hostilities may abate as the two countries realize that they have more in common that the issues that divide them, that trade is important, and that they need each other. On the other hand, it can also be argued that the failure of Chinese economic sanctions against Australia shows that they can get along nicely without each other. Which it will be is unclear, but the ball appears to be in China’s court.

1. Mu Lu, “How Australia is Pushed to a Belligerent Path,” Global Times (Beijing) Monday November 22, 2021.

2. Ruth Williams, “Stern Hu Case a ‘Wake-Up Call’ on the Challenges of China Relationship,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 7, 2018.

3. Jane Perlez, “U.S. Casts Wary Eye on Australian Port Leased by Chinese,” New York Times, March 20, 2016.

4. Raymond Zhong, “Australia Bars China’s Huawei from Building 5G Wireless Network,” New York Times, March 20, 2018.

5. Nick McKenna and Chris Uhlman, “Canberra Strands Beijing’s Man Ashore, Denies Passport,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 5, 2019.

6. Christopher Walsh, “How and Why Did the Northern Territory Lease the Darwin Port to China, and at What Risk?”  Australian Broadcasting System (ABC), March 13, 2019.

7.   Reuters, “Australia Demands Coronavirus Inquiry, Adding to Pressure on China,” CNBC, April 18, 2020.

8. Jack Norton, “Australian Call for COVID-19 Inquiry Like Brutus Knifing Caesar: China’s Deputy Ambassador,” Australian Strategi Policy Institute, August 26, 2020.

9. Roland Rajah, “Vital Trade Lessons from China’s Failed Attempt at Coercion,” The Australian, April 14, 2021.

10. Ben Packham, “China Diplomat Slapped Down Over Uni Protest,” The Australian, July 17, 2019.

11. Rosie Lewis, “Morrison Bolsters Vietnam Amid China Territory Row,” The Australian, April 22, 2019.

12. “Outspoken Liberal Politicians Must ‘Repent and Redress,’ Says China.” Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) November 16, 2019.

13. “Australia Called ‘Gum Stuck to China’s Shoe’ by State Media in Coronavirus Investigation Stoush,” The Guardian, April 28, 2020.

14. “Australian Correspondents Bill Birtles and Mike Smith Pulled Out of China After Five-Day Diplomatic Standoff Over National Security Case,” Australian Broadcasting Network, September 8, 2020.

15. Austin Ramzy, “Australia Halts Hong Kong Extradition Agreement and Extends Visas,” New York Times, July 9, 2020.

16. Reuters, “China to Lose Access to Australian Space Tracking Station,” Asahi, September 21, 2020.

17. Zhang Yi, “Is Australia Serious in Backing India in Border Tensions with China?” Global Times, August 2, 2020.

18. Associated Press, “Australia Backs Kirin’s $439 Million Sale of Business to Chinese,” Asahi, August 25, 2020.

19. Rachel Pannett, “Australia Targets Foreign Influence with Deal Veto Legislation,” Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2020

20. Agence France Presse, “Australia Cancels State’s Belt and Road Deal with China,” France 24, April 21, 2021.

21. “Australia Can Ban Human Rights Abusers, Cyber Attackers as Magnitsky Laws Set to Pass,” Sydney Morning Herald, December1, 2021;

22. “Japan, Australia, India Aim to Create Supply Chain to Ease Dependence on China,” Yomiuri, August 1, 2020; Kiran Sharma Aim to Steer Supply Chains Around China,” Nikkei, September 1, 2020.

23. Tory Shepherd, “Australia Tore Up French Contract ‘For Convenience’ Naval Group Says,” The Guardian, September 29, 2021.

24. Agence France Presse, “Australia Mocks ‘Silly’ China Criticism of Nuclear Subs,” International Business Times, November 19, 2021.

25. Jonathan Kearsley, Erik Bagshaw, and Anthony Galloway, “’If You Make China the Enemy, China Will Be the Enemy:’ China’s Fresh Threat to Australia,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 18, 2020.

26. Shaimaa Khalil, “Australia Demands China Apologize for Posting ‘Repugnant’ Fake Image,” British Broadcasting System, November 30, 2020.

27. Ben Packham, “We Will Not Bow, Peter Dutton Warns China.” The Australian, November 26, 2021.

28. Greg Sheridan, “The Truth is, China Will Stop at Nothing Until the West is Lost,” The Australian, December 10, 2021.

29. Bruce Haigh, “Dutton’s Sabre Rattling an Election Tactic to Strike Fear of China Among Swing Voters,” Global Times, November 30, 2021.

30. “‘Weak, Racist, Self-Destructive’: Chinese General Attacks Aussie Military Capabilities,” Sky News Australia, April 28, 2021.

31. “Australia Has Fomented Riots in Solomon Islands,” Global Times, November 27, 2021.

32. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins, National Intelligence Council, November 2021.

33. Ben Packham, “We Will Not Bow, Peter Dutton Warns China.” The Australian, November 26, 2021; Anthony Galloway, “’Call the Prime Minister Out’: Wong Says Morrison Stoking Fears of China Conflict,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 19, 2021.

34. Sun Wanning, Australia-China Relations Institute, December 5, 2021.

35. Hugh White, “Australia’s China Problems Will Only Get Worse,” Nikkei, November 20, 2020.

36. Hugh White, “China now Likely to Call America’s Bluff Over Taiwan,” The Australian, November 21, 2021.

37. Professor John Fitzgerald, China analyst at Swinburne University, Melbourne, personal communication to the author, December 9, 2021.

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