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Fundamental Misunderstandings in the Australia-China Relationship

26 Nov 2021
By Dr Ye Xue

The bilateral relationship between China and Australia has been in decline since 2017. The conventional perspective is that the tension is caused by a sharp clash of interests and values, but this is only partially true.

One profound cause of the current drifting of China-Australia relations is the mutual misunderstanding of each other’s conception of their own role and identity, which has led leaders and analysts in both countries to use faulty assumptions to understand one another’s motives and foreign policies. It is thus arguable that the tension between the two countries is a clash of emotions. The symbolic nature of the competition makes it more, rather than less, difficult to resolve.

How Australia Misunderstands China

A robust “China debate” has emerged in Australia, with the prevailing voice propagating the sense that China favours authoritarianism over its partnership with Australia. This perspective is a classic misunderstanding of Chinese foreign outreach, as it underestimates China’s relational sensitivity.

The concern of relationship with “the other” is deeply embedded in Chinese ritual, face culture, and group orientation. It is distinctive from Western understandings of relations between individuals, which typically start with units themselves that conceive of their relationship as secondary. Chinese understanding of relationships transcends purely individualist rationality, creating a societal norm in which  both parties of a relationship are obligated to make decisions based on their relational intimacy and hierarchical distance, and makes unilateral action based on self-interest uncommon and unacceptable. The feeling of losing face arises from the failure of others to act in accordance with this shared norm.

With the guidance of this cultural tradition, China has tried to execute a strategy of relational security to coach its partners to manage and cultivate their bilateral relationship with China, specifically by enacting a continuing reciprocal role performance. The strategy is preoccupied with achieving positive reciprocity with the other. Also, it unambiguously attempts to stress nonapparent national interests rather than apparent ones, and it constitutes “the other” as part and parcel of long-term self-interest. It is thus evident that  the strategy of relational security is not a transactional logic epitomised by supply and demand in microeconomics or the logic of the balance of power in IR realism.

Partnership diplomacy started in 1993 and is the core component of China’s relational strategy. China has developed its global partnership with other international actors ranging from a friendly, cooperative partnership at its base, to a comprehensive strategic partnership at the more high-level end — which is reflective of both the degree of intimacy and level of importance that Beijing attaches to that specific state.

China’s global partnership network has widened and deepened over the past seven years. By the end of 2019, it had established 112 bilateral partnerships with other states.

China and Australia established a formal “strategic partnership” in 2012 and upgraded this partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2014. This implies that China has a higher expectation of Australia’s actions and performance in this relationship. However, this does not imply that China aims to interfere in Australian institutions or values, in order to improve their relationship for China’s benefit. What China does want is the leeway to determine its own specific values or institutions when interacting with Australia, provided that there is a reciprocal and stable relationship that inspires confidence on both sides.

In the eyes of the Chinese, Australia is the one that has undermined the partnership. The “fourteen grievances” identified by the Chinese Embassy in Australia reflect Canberra’s violation of the spirit of the comprehensive strategic partnership. Beijing believes it has demonstrated considerable tolerance to Australia’s deviant actions as it did not retaliate and has made concessions dramatic enough to compel Australia to stabilise this reciprocal relationship.

What intensified Beijing’s relational insecurity and feeling of losing face was Canberra’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in April 2020. The perception in Beijing was that Canberra had refused to reciprocate China’s tolerance. The economic sanctions that arrived in May 2020, therefore, aimed to restore the reciprocal relationship through more coercive means.

How China Misunderstands Australia

For China, Australia has less strategic importance than the United States and other neighbouring states. Most discussions relating to Australian foreign policy are viewed through the lens of the China-US great power competition, and Australia is perceived as an “anti-China vanguard” because of the pro-American force in its domestic politics. However, the deepest reason behind the pro-Americanism has been ignored.

The core of Australia’s foreign policy is the preservation of the liberal rules-based international order constructed by the US and its allies after WWII. The importance of the liberal order to Australia goes beyond providing security and prosperity, it tames the sense of insecurity Australia possesses as a country.

Since the continent’s settlement by British colonists in the late eighteenth century, Australian society has experienced profound bouts of fear. Noticeably, the fall of the British base in Singapore during WWII convinced Australian leaders that having a powerful ally for the defense of Australia’s region was a necessity. Allan Gyngell argues that the fear of abandonment is fundamental to Australia’s strategic imagination, largely because of this collective memory of the origin of the state.

China’s assertive policy towards territorial disputes and lack of political liberalisation, coupled with its economic leverage over Australia, have inevitably exacerbated the fear of China’s rise in Canberra. The cardinal mistake of China’s policy towards Australia is the lack of a designated strategy to tame the anxiety of its comprehensive strategic partner. Consequently, it led Australian political elites to perceive the differences in terms of values, interests, and political institutions.

Therefore, the prevailing perspective in Australia is that the strategic partnership is chiefly undermined by China’s interference with Australia’s domestic politics and its threat to the rules-based order.

Australia has embraced a deterrence-focused China policy to balance against China’s growing regional and global ambitions. This policy has included tightening up domestic institutions – with notable examples including the revised Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in 2018, and the new foreign veto laws – and engaging in security cooperation that aims to contain China with the aid of other regional powers (e.g., the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS).

The Future

The current China-Australia tension is largely driven by negative emotions held by both sides. Chinese and Australian leaders do not want to appear weak in the eyes of their counterpart, other states, or their domestic audience by giving in to threats.

However, Beijing and Canberra’s efforts at coercion and deterrence have thus far had effects that are contrary to their intention.

A good sign is that politicians on both sides have expressed their willingness to fix the bilateral relationship. The vice chair of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, Fu Yin, declared China’s willingness to “increase mutual understanding and trust.” Similarly, Scott Morrison expressed his demand for “happy coexistence.” But how can this rhetoric become a reality?

A good strategy for conflict management should build on the nature and causes of conflict. So, the use of coercion and deterrence should not be the only approach for both sides.

Diplomacy and reassurance will alleviate these emotional-driven tensions. Accommodation and cooperation can be achieved by reducing fear, anxiety, mistrust, and misunderstanding.

Given that the political divergence between the two governments remains large, diplomacy could start from a Track II level, for example through collaboration  between non-state actors, such as think tanks, business sectors, universities. The reopening of both countries’ borders will allow public diplomacy to resume. These efforts could alter the political climate in both countries and lay a social foundation for future Track I diplomacy.

In terms of reassurance, Australian should attempt to be more open and humbler in its foreign policy and relations with China and allow China to hold on to the distinctive aspects of its state-society model and foreign policy orientation. Meanwhile, China should restrain itself when dealing with its territorial dispute and establish a security-focused channel to communicate with Australia, in order to alleviate its fear. By doing that, both countries can become more compatible, and —in different ways— be part of a capitalist and globally interlinked world economy.

Dr Ye Xue is a research associate at Australia National University. He specialises in non-Western international relations theory, Chinese foreign policy, Australia-China relations, and sports politics. His research has been published in leading scholarly journals including the Pacific Review, Pacific Focus and Journal of Contemporary China. Dr. Xie also provides regular commentary on contemporary developments China-Australia Relations and Chinese society. His opinion pieces have appeared in the Conversation, the Interpreter and Honi Soit.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.