Re-elected Morrison government facing ‘biggest test’ on China-Australia relationship

Newly re-elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison is being urged to make a visit to Beijing a priority.

Scott Morrison at Chinatown's Golden Century Seafood Restaurant

Scott Morrison faces a big test to manage the relationship between Canberra and Beijing. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will face his biggest test yet on foreign policy when he heads to the G20 summit next month.

Australia’s relationship with China will again be challenged by a potential US-China trade deal set to be finalised at the Japan summit.

Director of the ANU's East Asian Bureau of Economic Research Shiro Armstrong said any deal will have far-reaching ramifications for the region.

“Do we let the US and China determine a new order and carve up our interests that we have to pick up the pieces from?” Mr Armstrong told SBS News.

“Or can Australia, with other countries in the region, position for outcomes that are more in line with our interests  and will Australia and the rest of the world stand up for multilateralism.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison celebrates at a Chinese New Year festival in Melbourne.
Source: AAP

Foreign policy was hardly raised during the five-week campaign, but improving the bumpy relationship with its biggest trading partner, while keeping traditional ally the United States onside, will be a difficult balancing act for the re-elected government.

While other countries were quick to congratulate the prime minister on his unexpected victory at the weekend, China was sending a more pointed message.

An editorial in the state-owned China Daily called on Canberra to show more respect to Beijing.

The newspaper singled out Mr Morrison’s characterisation of China as a “customer” and the US as a “friend”.

“But even in the business world one would not treat one's most important customer with such bias and suspicion,” the newspaper stated.

The Belt and Road project is Chinese President Xi Jinping signature policy.
Source: AAP

Australia’s trade with China continues to grow and is now worth seven per cent of GDP, but in recent months winemakers, beef producers and coal have faced hurdles getting their products into the country.

James Laurenceson, acting director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, downplayed the tensions.

He said refreshing the relationship required a shift in attitude from Canberra rather than a change in policy.

“Morrison has said that he will use the John Howard approach which is setting aside differences with China and engaging China constructively where we can and where it’s in our national interests.

"Those sorts of references to China only being a customer are certainly unfortunate but I don’t think they’re going to have any long term damage.”

Mr Laurenceson said a visit from the newly re-elected leader would send a strong signal.  

While China put Australia in the “deep freeze” which resulted in ministers being unable to travel there, Mr Laurenceson believed Mr Morrison would be welcome.  

“I think a visit from Morrison would help dispel some of the doubts and it would be a real shot in the arm for Australian businesses.”

The newly re-elected government also faces a dilemma about its involvement in President Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative.

Australia has so far resisted formally signing up to the trillion-dollar trade project.

Critics say it is a vehicle to spread China’s influence and saddle smaller countries with “debt traps”, but others see the opportunities to improve connections.

Mr Laurenceson said the Belt and Road Initiative is not just about infrastructure and greater involvement would enable Canberra to address hurdles facing Australian exporters.  

“If you want to have an impact you’ve got to be having a dialogue with China about those concerns so I would welcome the Australian government taking a more proactive role to engaging on the Belt and Road.”

Published 22 May 2019 at 5:29pm