Australian media have been highlighting strains in the relationship between Canberra and Beijing due to distrust on both sides.
From China’s viewpoint, Australia tends to see things through a revived Cold War lens where Beijing is not playing by established international rules.
In the process, Beijing is seen as destabilizing an international system, which has worked well to everybody’s advantage, including China’s.
For instance, China has made tremendous economic progress under a well-established international trading regime.
Although Canberra does not squarely blame Beijing for the US-China trade dispute, it has called upon both parties to sort out their differences by diplomatic means. In other words, the US has a case and it needs to be resolved.
However, in terms of Beijing’s expanding role in the South China Sea, Canberra is in tune with Washington on the need to keep open the international waterway without encroachment by China.
Moreover, in Australia’s own strategic backyard of small Pacific states, as well as other parts of the world, China is making headway through infrastructure projects through the Belt and Road Initiative, some of which might become military bases.
Although it is not said loudly, it sometimes looks like that China is expanding its naval reach way beyond South China Sea — proclaiming its own Monroe Doctrine like the US did a long time ago for the Western Hemisphere.
If so, where would Australia fit in?
Obviously, Australia does not want to become part of China’s regional sphere. It has a long-standing strategic relationship with the US, which was designed precisely as a security shield in the Indo-Pacific region where Australians did not feel comfortable as a largely European society.
China was always a danger of sorts, first, as a potentially endless source of immigrants, which led to the “white Australia” policy.
In the past few decades, more so under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) leadership, Beijing appears to be a security threat with its expanding economic, political and military reach.
In economic terms, China is now Australia’s largest trading partner, which makes Canberra vulnerable to its economic pressure. It is already happening and Beijing is not terribly subtle about it, as it tends to put obstacles, now and then, in the clearance of some export items. It is not full on obstruction, but a signal of sorts that it is not happy.
It recently turned into a tense diplomatic exchange following the arrest of China-born Australian citizen Yang Hengjun (楊恆均) over spying charges.
If convicted, Yang might face severe penalties, including a very long jail sentence.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said that she was “very concerned and disappointed” at the news of arrest, adding: “There is no basis for any allegation Dr Yang was spying for the Australian government.”
What probably irked Beijing more was Payne’s statement that Yang had been held in Beijing in harsh conditions without charge for more than seven months.
“Since that time, China has not explained the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention, nor has it allowed him access to his lawyers or family visits,” Payne said.
She said that she had twice discussed Yang’s detention with Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi (王毅) and had written to him three times, outlining the Australian government’s concerns for his welfare.