Australia-China Relations

Australia-China Relations

Australia – China relations refer to the bilateral relations between Australia and the People’s Republic of China. According to paulsourcing, there are very intensive economic relations between the two countries and for Australia, China is by far the most important trading partner with a third of the total foreign trade volume (2021). Chinese emigrated to Australia in large numbers as early as the 19th century and in 2021, almost 6 percent of Australia’s population was of Chinese descent. Australia established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in 1972 and has pursued a one-China policy ever since. After the establishment of an Australian embassy in Beijing in 1973, bilateral relations were significantly intensified and with the rapid growth of China’s economy, the country became the most important buyer of Australian raw materials and agricultural products. In 2015, both countries signed a free trade agreement. However, Australia’s very high economic dependence conflicts with its close security partnership with the United States and the country’s Western geopolitical orientation. During Xi Jinping ‘s reign, relations between the two countries cooled significantly. The reason for this is numerous differences of opinion and also Chinese attempts to influence Australian politics and the overseas Chinese there.


Early relationships

The number of Chinese in Australia increased significantly during the Victorian gold rush period and in 1861 amounted to around 40,000, representing 3.3% of the total population. Liang Lan-hsun was the first Chinese consul general in Australia, sent by the government of the Qing Empire to Melbourne, the then seat of the Australian government, in 1909. At the time, Australia was part of the British Empire and had no independent foreign policy. The Chinese community had been lobbying for a Qing consulate in Australia for many years, but the British Foreign Office was opposed to such an establishment. After the establishment of the Federation of Australia, Chinese desire for representation in Australia grew due to the start of the White Australia Policy and anti-Chinese sentiment following the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901.The Republic of China finally replaced the Qing in 1912. The Canton-Hong Kong Strike caused tensions between China and Australia in the 1920s and after the Northern Campaign the Kuomintang government criticized discrimination against the Chinese in Australia. In response, Australia’s regulations for Chinese residents and visitors were relaxed, making it easier for Chinese nationals to visit or study in Australia. The 1930s saw an upswing in bilateral relations. The Chinese Consulate General was restructured and relocated to Sydney and additional representations were opened in Australia. Lin Sen was the first Chinese head of state to visit Australia in 1932. In 1941, after gaining control of its foreign policy from Great Britain, Australia established official diplomatic relations with the Republic of China and in 1948 the mutual foreign missions were upgraded to embassies.

After 1949

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the withdrawal of the Republic of China government to Taiwan, Australia did not recognize the People’s Republic. The United Kingdom under Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee proposed in 1949 that Britain, Australia and New Zealand should jointly recognize the new government. However, the Australian and New Zealand governments were concerned about the impact on domestic politics at a time when communism was perceived as a growing threat and did not want to recognize the People’s Republic for the time being. The Korean War (1950–1953), where the People’s Republic intervened and Australian soldiers fought against the Chinese, ultimately made recognition a distant prospect. There was then a lengthy break in Australian relations with mainland China, with official diplomatic contacts only existing with Taiwan. The turning point came in 1971, when Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam visited China before Henry Kissinger’s historic visit. In December 1972, after Whitlam’s election victory that year, Australia established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and ended recognition of Chiang Kai-shek ‘s Republic of China. The following year, Whitlam became the first Australian leader to visit China and an Australian embassy was opened. Following the reform and opening-up policies initiated by Deng Xiaoping, economic relations were significantly expanded. Australia has benefited from China’s demand for natural resources, which were needed to modernize China’s economy and infrastructure and meet the country’s growing energy needs. Liberalization of Australian immigration law also led to a renewed wave of Chinese immigration from the 1970s.

In 2007, China finally became Australia’s most important trading partner, replacing the USA. Thanks to its close economic ties with China, Australia was also able to weather the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 relatively well, which hit other countries much harder. Kevin Rudd ‘s terms as Australian Prime Minister (2007-2010 and 2013) were beneficial for China-Australia relations, particularly as Rudd was the first Prime Minister fluent in Mandarin and made relations with Asian countries a priority made foreign policy. He offered China “true friendship” and called on the country to become a stakeholder in a “harmonious world order.” In 2013, both countries agreed on a strategic partnership, with regular meetings at government level, and in 2014 negotiations on a free trade agreement were concluded. The relationships thus reached their climax. After that, however, they began to cool down. In June 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered a full investigation into Chinese espionage and foreign interference following media reports of Chinese attempts to influence Australian politicians and put pressure on international students studying in Australia. The Chinese Communist Party had put pressure on Chinese diaspora groups and tried to use money to influence the positions of Australian politicians in order to promote its interests. As a result, foreign party donations were banned and Australia banned Huawei from its 5G network in 2018. In November 2019, Australian news channel Nine Network aired a report about alleged Chinese attempts to infiltrate the Australian Parliament by recruiting car dealer Bo “Nick” Zhao to run in an election in a constituency. Zhao was later found dead in a Melbourne hotel room, although the cause of death remained undetermined. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the incident “deeply disturbing and concerning.”

Australia criticized Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, the passage of the Hong Kong security law and the persecution of the Uyghurs, and increased its security cooperation with the United States and Asia-Pacific states through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. In 2020, after the global COVID-19 pandemic began, Australia called for an independent international investigation into the origins of the pandemic, angering the Chinese. The People’s Republic of China therefore intensified a trade war that had already begun against Australia with punitive tariffs on Australian beef and grain. On November 17, 2020, an official at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra handed an Australian journalist a list of 14 Chinese allegations against Australia criticizing Australia’s China policy. As a result of the collapse of relations with China, over 90 percent of Australians in surveys were in favor of greater diversification of Australia’s foreign trade and only 24 percent trusted the Chinese government. In September 2021, Australia announced a new trilateral military security partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom for the Indo-Pacific called AUKUS, under which Australia announced it would acquire conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines. Although China is not specifically mentioned in the announcements, this was seen as a major blow to Australia-China relations as it will mean Australia will be closely allied militarily with the US. The Chinese government criticized the alliance and accused the states involved of wanting to start an arms race. At the end of March 2022, the Australian government in turn criticized the draft security pact between China and the Solomon Islands, which would allow Beijing to station military forces in the country and establish a military base, which worried Australians.

Relations between the two countries began to improve again after the Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese won the 2022 general election. In November 2023, Albanese became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the People’s Republic of China for the first time in seven years. A normalization of diplomatic and economic relations was agreed.

Economic relations

Australia is one of the countries most dependent on China’s economy. After China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001, trade volumes grew rapidly. Almost 40 percent of Australia’s exports go to China and almost 20 percent of imports came from the country in 2021. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, primarily because of China’s strong demand for iron ore, coal, agricultural goods and liquefied natural gas. In return, Australia imports the majority of industrial products. The spending by Chinese tourists and foreign students in Australia is also of great economic importance for Australia. Numerous wealthy Chinese have also purchased real estate in Australia. Between 2007 and 2014, Chinese buyers made investments worth over $20 billion in the real estate market.

As of 2018, trade relations were negatively affected by the development of political relations between the two countries. Australia banned the Chinese IT company Huawei for security reasons and China imposed various punitive tariffs on Australian goods despite a free trade agreement concluded in 2015.

Cultural relations

Australia has welcomed numerous immigrants from China, who have become a significant minority group in Australian society. In the 2021 Australian Census, 1.3 million people reported Chinese ancestry, which was 5.5 percent of the total population. The cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane are now home to large numbers of Australian-born Chinese or Chinese-born migrants, while there are smaller Chinese communities in regional centres, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales. There are also Chinatowns in all Australian capital cities, including Darwin, and large public Chinese New Year celebrations in Melbourne and Sydney. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has ties to Chinese culture, having studied Chinese at the Australian National University in Canberra. Due to the close relations with China, there are numerous foundations and think tanks in Australia that deal with China, such as the Australia China Relations Institute or the Lowy Institute. 13 Confucius Institutes act as cultural representatives of China in Australia, but they found themselves at the center of controversy due to their attempted political influence, which is why they were threatened with closure.

Australian-Chinese relations are particularly close in the education sector. As an English-speaking country with good education, Australia is a popular destination for upper-class Chinese children. In June 2022, there were over 140,000 Chinese in Australian universities and other educational institutions; in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were almost 250,000. China is also a popular destination for Australian students studying abroad, with 4,700 Australian students in China (2014).

Australia-China Relations