Sino-Australian relations continue to sour as Australia flexes its diplomatic muscles

Sino-Australian relations continue their downward spiral as Australia increases its presence in the Indo-Pacific with a stream of treaties to counter Chinese influence, including a landmark defence pact with Japan

Ever since relations with Beijing collapsed in 2020 following the Covid-19 pandemic, Canberra has been aligning itself with every possible ally it can find to counter its new rival, and as we begin 2022 Australia finds itself taking a leading role in opposing Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific. The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) between Australia and Japan has been signed this month, following the significant trilateral treaty between the US, UK and Australia, known as AUKUS, signed in September 2021. Another important treaty is the Australia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (AI-CECA) which is yet to be signed, but plans have been made for it to pass by the end of 2022.

These treaties go hand in hand with the strengthening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as Quad, which includes the US, India, Japan, and Australia. The Quad came into existence primarily to counter the ever-increasing influence of China in the Indo-Pacific, with a focus on the South China Sea.

Australia increases its presence in the Indo-Pacific

With Japan and Australia signing the RAA, these two nations can now work together militarily on a grander scale, sending a strong message to Beijing that Canberra and Tokyo are willing to resist Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. The RAA not only allows Australian and Japanese troops to be deployed in each other's territories, but will also lead to an increase in joint military exercises and training manoeuvres on land, sea, and air. This treaty, although between Australia and Japan, will also lead to the emergence of US–Australia–Japan trilateral cooperation since the USA is also heavily invested in the Indo-Pacific and happens to have a military alliance with both nations. Although China was not named as the reason for this “landmark” defence agreement as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida put it, it is clear that the threat of China is the reason behind this pact.

In fact, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arguably took a shot at China when he stated that RAA was, “An equal partnership, shared trust between two great democracies committed to the rule of law, human rights, free trade and a free and open Indo-Pacific.” One can defer that Morrison’s mention of respect for human rights, free trade, and an open Indo-Pacific was aimed at China. After all, Australia has already reproached Beijing on its failure to commit to human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It has also condemned Chinas aggressive actions against Taiwan and its military maneuverers in the Taiwan Strait, as well as Chinas build-up of island chains in the South China Sea. Surprisingly Beijing has said little in reaction to this new pact, although one can assume that Chinese officials are not all too happy with a future Australian military presence in Japan.

Although the RAA was indeed a landmark agreement, the most threatening alliance for China has been AUKUS. This trilateral alliance will allow Canberra to deploy nuclear submarines in the Indo-Pacific, as well as improve its cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies. Although China was not mentioned directly as the reason for the existence of this geopolitical triumvirate, it is obvious that AUKUS means to contain China. As the Anglosphere seemingly reinforces itself, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stated that AUKUS is, "severely damaging regional peace... and intensifying the arms race". Beijing went as far as accusing AUKUS of reigniting a cold war mentality that benefits no one, and the Chinese state-run Global Times news said Australia had now "turned itself into an adversary of China".

Beijing miscalculates its power

AUKUS did not lead to Australia becoming an adversary of China however, rather, it was Beijing’s attempt at controlling Canberra that led to AUKUS. China had already imposed boycotts on Australian goods, including wine, beef, lobsters, coal, and iron, to cause “economic pain” as far back as May 2020. Tensions were so high a Chinese government official went as far as stating in November 2020 "China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.” However, this “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” backfired. Australia managed to increase its profits in the Resource and Energy sector by 22%, from $310 billion in 2020 to $379 billion in 2021, and the economy, in general, has yet to take a major hit. China, on the other hand, has suffered far more from boycotting Australian coal, with constant blackouts since September in parts of the country.

While Beijing continues to react in an unorganised manner towards Australia's diplomatic manoeuvres, with no apparent aim on how to punish its new rival, Canberra understood its position rather well from the get-go and began to decouple its economy from China. This vital and somewhat dangerous economic move may have paid off as Australia increasingly eyes India. The AI-CECA treaty that is yet to be signed will increase trade and monetary investment in both nations, allowing Australia to move into a market with over 1 billion people backed by a fast-growing economy (9.5% increase in 2021). Trade had grown in value from $13.6bn in 2007 to $24.3bn in 2020, and closer ties aim to increase that number. As China continues to boycott certain Australian goods, India may benefit from this, and Canberra can now seek to replace China with India as its major trade partner in Asia, weakening Chinas attempts at economic blackmail.

An outmanoeuvred and isolated China?

To an extent, Beijing is not incorrect in its cold war comparison when speaking of AUKUS and other treaties. The concept of cordon sanitaire is being adopted by the likes of the US and Australia, as they slowly form alliances with every nation around China, with the explicit aim of lessening Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. After all, that is the whole conceptualisation of the Quad, a dialogue built around restricting the spread of Chinese influence on the world stage, while fortifying the nations that may lose the most in a China-dominated Indo-Pacific. China is in a tough spot, while Australia seems to be well ahead of the game and leading the charge against Beijing in 2022.

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