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China not an ace for Australian politicians

By Digby Wren | China Daily | Updated: 2022-04-21 07:31


In 1972, Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party to a historic election landslide and, in December that year, established diplomatic relations with China. In the 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, Australia's economy has benefited enormously from the economic rise of China.

Bilateral relations were progressing smoothly until 2011, when then US president Barack Obama visited Australia and announced his "pivot to Asia" policy, signalling the future and current turbulence in Sino-Australian relations.

When Australia's Liberal Party coalition returned to power in 2013, China's economic growth rate had begun to moderate. This prompted the Liberal Party to recalibrate Australia's trade and investment with China and give preference to the security relationship with the United States. The Liberal Party assessed the mineral and energy sectors to be only marginally susceptible to economic pressure, as it believed China would require stable supply to sustain its growth targets.

However, in 2019, the Reserve Bank of Australia reported a slowdown in global trade, in large part, due to the Trump administration's trade policies with the US' major partners and the trade and tech war against China, both of which had dampened growth in Asia, and therefore, in Australia.

Following Scott Morrison's "surprise" victory in the 2019 elections, the Liberal Party sought closer alignment with US foreign policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific region and entrenched the role of fossil fuels in the economy, pursued deregulation, cut taxes and weakened labor market protections.

By 2020, as it sought to contain the economic fallout from the escalating novel coronavirus pandemic and Australia's first recession in 30 years, the Liberal Party began to hype the "China threat" narrative and joined the Anglo-American hysteria over the Taiwan question, which would lead to a formalization of the QUAD dialogue (Japan, India, Australia and US) and eventually the AUKUS alliance (Australia, United Kingdom and US).

In an effort to deflect voter attention from its mishandling of the pandemic, declining living standards, rising inflation, stagnant wages and under-funded aged care, the Liberal Party government adopted national security as its 2022 election platform. Morrison spoke of a new "arc of autocracy" between Moscow and Beijing and linked the Ukraine crisis to a potential conflict over Taiwan.

In fact, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton has said that it is "inconceivable" for Australia not to support the US in a future war over Taiwan and senior Liberal Party ministers have attacked the Labor Party's record on national security, arguing that China would prefer Anthony Albanese and Labor to win the federal election.

The statements were widely condemned, and prompted the former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief Dennis Richardson to say the Morrison government was seeking to create the perception of a difference between the major parties when none in practice exists.

A key finding of recent voter research has been the disparity between the Liberal Party's posturing on national security and the sentiments of the electorate. Sixty-one percent of Australian voters, in a recent survey, said the relationship with China ought to be carefully managed, while only 26 percent thought China was a threat to be confronted. And when asked which party would better manage the relationship, 37 percent said Labor, 28 percent said the Liberal Party coalition and 34 percent were unsure.

Significantly, the International Monetary Fund has lowered Australia's long-term growth rate, forecasting that the 2022 election would obscure news that living standards would decline for many years into the future.

More recently, the Ukraine crisis has led to an increase in oil prices, though they have dropped somewhat of late, increased the cost of living and hastened Morrison's decline in voter polls. Labor is now the preferred government over the Liberal Party-55 percent to 45 percent. Morrison's 23 percent lead as preferred prime minister over opposition leader Anthony Albanese in August 2021 had all but disappeared by March 2022.

If the polls are any guide, Albanese has understood that the relations with China are essential to achieving Labor's economic platform. While Albanese has referenced China's changed posture toward Australian imports as a key concern for Australian businesses, he has also highlighted China's "forward-leaning" attitude as the key reason for changes to foreign policy.

Labor's foreign policy is based on three principles: the alliance with the US, regional engagement, and support for multilateral forums. And Albanese has spoken of boosting defense spending beyond 2 percent of GDP should regional geopolitical tensions rise.

However, Albanese and his deputy Penny Wong's bipartisanship on Ukraine does not mean they have adopted Morrison's foreign policy toward India, China, Russia and/or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The main concern is that the US, and the Morrison government in particular, appear to have abandoned their refusal to support an "independent Taiwan".

A priority for Albanese will be to swiftly arrest the perception that to counter China, Australia has to re-prioritize its relations with the UK and the US at the expense of fostering regional collaboration. Labor's shadow foreign minister Penny Wong has already committed to appointing an ASEAN special envoy to forge closer relations with key regional capitals.

For Albanese to win the May election, he must not allow Morrison to smother the media conversation with alarmist narratives about Beijing, Kyiv and Taiwan. The focus must remain on falling wages, inflationary pressures on living standards, and an innovation policy that answers the requirements of both big businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises.

Finally, Albanese needs to make the important shift toward a more independent foreign policy focused on economic development and improved relations with China, ASEAN and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Albanese and Wong will need to keep reminding voters that national security is not only about inflating external threats, but also about building a robust domestic industrial policy and a regionally collaborative trade policy.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.





The author is a political analyst at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.

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