His trip to China, which was the first by an Australian prime minister since Malcolm Turnbull’s trip in 2016, has become a symbol of his endeavor to stabilize Australia’s relationship with China. Albanese’s trip was the first by an Australian prime minister since Turnbull’s. In the time leading up to the trip, we were able to make headway on a good many of the tensions that lingered from the Morrison administration.
The Albanian administration deserves praise for its role in the dramatic improvement of bilateral relations in such a short amount of time. But how long will this stabilization last, and will it be able to withstand the many challenges that lie ahead?
The expanding challenges that are being viewed through the prism of national security in both Australia and China pose one of the most significant long-term risks to the stability of the bilateral relationship. This has been and will continue to be harmful to the economy as well as the connections between individuals.
National security has supplanted economic expansion as the foremost goal in China under Xi Jinping’s leadership. According to him, it has become “the bedrock of national rejuvenation” in recent years. As a consequence of this, the Chinese government is placing a renewed emphasis on the nation’s ability to provide for itself in terms of both food and technology. In addition, as part of its trip to eradicate espionage and the influences of “hostile foreign forces,” it is intensifying its scrutiny of individuals and enterprises with the possibility of having connections to other countries. Numerous businesses and grassroots organizations, ranging from consulting firms to LGBT advocacy groups, were brought to their knees as a result of this.
It is quite improbable that Australia will be successful in persuading the leadership of China to place less significance on national security or to reduce the intensity of anti-espionage activities. Naturally, the Chinese government may modify its approach to national security if they feel the need to do so in order to satisfy domestic concerns. For instance, if the effect is a severe slowdown in economic growth that creates widespread societal unhappiness.
However, the Australian government has the ability to control the trend of securitization in the country. During the course of the last five years, the nation has gone through a process very similar to this one, whereby each issue that has a connection to China has assumed an acute dimension of national security.
In the same way that Beijing is concerned about its dependence on foreign technology in supply chains and works toward self-reliance, Canberra is likewise concerned about technology that is manufactured in China and has called for friendshoring. Whereas Beijing has extended its definition of espionage to include foreigners insisting on meeting with anyone suspected of jeopardizing national security, Canberra has also classified giving open-source material to probable foreign agents as foreign interference. This is in contrast to Beijing’s expansion of its definition of espionage to include foreigners insisting on meeting with people suspected of endangering national security.
People who have strong ties to both Australia and China, such as Chinese Australians who have family in China and Australian businesses who do business in China, have faced the brunt of the adverse effects of the recent trends in securitization in both nations. After all, they are the ones who are being persecuted, either by nationalists and self-appointed national security vigilantes or by officials from the government, simply because relations are getting worse between the two groups. They are consequently less likely to continue serving in the role of the bridge between the two countries as a result of this. Due to the fact that they are being forced to choose, some individuals have made the decision to leave either China as businesses from Australia or Australia as Chinese academics from Australia.
Those individuals who still maintain connections to both nations, whether by choice or for other reasons, are far more careful than they were in the past, including playing down their affiliations or interests. This is the case regardless of whether the relationships are maintained for positive or negative reasons. In spite of the fact that things have been getting warmer between us over the past year, many people have kept up their habit of self-censorship, which is difficult to break. Without them speaking up, there would be more frequent and severe instances of misunderstanding as well as distrust.
Once broken, these kinds of people-to-people ties, much like trust, can take a significant amount of time to mend and reconstruct. Because of this, it is essential to have institutions that can survive longer than a single term in office or a single cycle of fiscal planning.
It is important that both the public and private sectors in Australia lend their support to the formation of an institutionalized private diplomatic project that is analogous to the Australian American Leadership Dialogue that already exists between Australia and the United States. If we are able to engage in private diplomatic activity with one major state, there is no reason why we cannot engage in similar activity with the other major power.
In addition, the government of Australia ought to provide financial support for the establishment of a center that will carry out impartial and independent policy-focused research in order to broaden people’s understanding of China and to fortify the bilateral relationship after this trip. This would be analogous to the United States Studies Centre, which works on enhancing the relationship between Australia and the United States.
The sustained success of the endeavor to stabilize the situation would be ensured by the presence of independent institutions such as these. They would be less affected by the budget cycle or the political processes that are associated with ministers approving or denying a grant, as opposed to the process of receiving funding through a grant. These institutions are able to provide independent advise to the government, contribute to the range of viewpoints expressed regarding China’s policies, and assist in the development of trust between the United States and China.
It is important to work towards restoring confidence between both parties. Instead of reacting impulsively to decisions that affect their national interests, both nations are given the opportunity to think more rationally about those interests. When things don’t go as planned, political leaders all over the world have a tendency to nurse their hurt pride and harbor resentment rather than making decisions that are in their country’s best interests. Having trust in one another helps to lessen the impact of that risk. The first step toward constructing it has been taken with the meeting between Albanese and Xi.