The dragon and the kangaroo: 45 years of Australia-China relations

The Sydney Opera House is illuminated in red as the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations begin in Sydney, Australia on January 27, 2017. Source: AAP

The 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations comes amid rising tensions between the two countries.

It is 45 years since Australia and China formally established diplomatic relations on December 21, 1972. Since then, China has grown into a global economic giant, lifting an estimated 800 million Chinese people out of poverty and transforming the face of Asia and the Indo-Pacific nations. 

The bilateral trade relationship has gone from strength to strength, but the diplomatic relationship between the two nations has been more of a challenge.

At the same time, social interaction between everyday Australians and Chinese people has transformed, led by huge demand from Chinese students to study in Australia, and the two-way tourist trade.

Australia's leading China experts reflect on 45 years of relations
Australia's leading China experts reflect on 45 years of relations

Professor Antonia Finnane, a Chinese history expert from the University of Melbourne, told SBS News that between the two countries “there’s goodwill, but there’s very little understanding or detailed knowledge.”

“This has been a strong economic relationship developing incrementally, two steps forward, one-step back at various points; accompanied by a growing mutual awareness of the two places in the two societies,” Professor Finnane, herself a student in China in the 1970s, said. 

But the anniversary’s timing is unfortunate. It comes as relations between the two countries are a low point not seen for a decade.

By the numbers

Trade: In 1972, two-way trade between Australia and China was worth less than $100 million; it’s now worth more than $155 billion. China is Australia’s largest trade partner by a long shot, well ahead of the US and Japan. 

Tourism: There were fewer than 500 Chinese tourists who made the trip to Australia in 1972; in 2016 it was more than 1.2 million. Australian visitor numbers to China have ballooned too, from less than 500 in 1972 to more than 150,000 in just the first quarter of 2015.  

Education: According to the Australian embassy, there were no Chinese students in Australia in 1972 - in 2016 they made up easily the largest share of international students in the country at 140,000 and continued to increase in 2017. 

Migrants and expats: In the 2016 census, 2.2 per cent - well over 500,000 Australian citizens and residents - were born in China. The Australian population in China is harder to pin down but given China is not a high-immigration country, it’s most certainly a lot lower. One report of China’s 2010 census claimed there were about 13,000 Australians living in China, about 2 per cent of the almost 600,000 foreign residents. 

AUSTRALIA, Sydney: The Sydney Opera House is illuminated red as Lunar New Year celebrations begin in Sydney, Australia on January 27, 2017. (AAP Image/NEWZULU/Richard Milnes).
The Sydney Opera House is illuminated in red as the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations begin in Sydney, Australia on January 27, 2017.

High points: From Whitlam's visit to free trade

Australia’s reformist Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam gets the credit for establishing formal diplomatic ties with Communist China in 1972. In an extraordinary move, he had visited as opposition leader, meeting personally with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1971. 

“This was such a big thing,” said Professor Finanne.

It was US preferences that had prevented Australia from officially recognising China any earlier, despite the fact - as Professor Finanne points out - that Canada and France were among the major western powers who had already opened official relations with China.

Gough Whitlam, right, meets Chairman Mao Zedong during an official visit to China in 1973.
Gough Whitlam, right, meets Chairman Mao Zedong during an official visit to China in 1973.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Robert Macklin, the author of Dragon and Kangaroo: Australia and China’s Shared History from the Goldfields to the Present Day, told SBS News “America was virulently anti-communist and the Australian government of the time felt itself unable to even recognise the People’s Republic of China, preferring to sign the ANZUS Defence Treaty with America.”

However, it was just days after Mr Whitlam’s foray that US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger revealed his secret visit to China on the same mission - a surprise to the Australians as much as anyone.

A few years later, in 1978, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping initiated the reform and market opening that would unleash his country's transformation into the economic giant it is today.

There followed a period, Macklin said, “of perhaps 35 years when China-Australia relations became closer than ever before.”

China-Australia relations became closer than ever before

Just two Chinese leaders have formally addressed the Australian parliament, Hu Jintao in 2003 and Xi Jinping in 2014. The Liberal government under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott secured the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement in 2014, which came into force a year later, consolidating the booming trade relationship. 

Abbott Xi
The President of the People's Republic of China Mr Xi Jinping with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Parliament House Canberra, November 17, 2014.
Pool The Guardian

Not allies, not enemies, but with “strong trade and economic complementarities” - since 2014 the Australia-China connection has officially been dubbed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” by the governments on both sides.

Low points: Tiananmen Square and historical racism

Fundamental differences between the values of Australia’s democratic system and China’s authoritarian, one-party state have led to inevitable moments of discord. These have flared up from time to time, notably after the Chinese government’s fatal crackdown at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, when hundreds, perhaps thousands of mostly young protesters were killed after police fired on them.

Some 27,000 Chinese students were in Australia at the time, and then Prime Minister Bob Hawke extended their visas - many settled permanently here as a result.

howard dalai
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, right, greets the Dalai Lama in Sydney, Australia, June 15, 2007.

Relations have also stumbled over sensitive issues for the Chinese Communist leadership such as when then Prime Minister John Howard met Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in 2007. Australians were bewildered by the aggressive nationalism on display in the organised protests around the Olympic torch relay in Canberra in 2008, where Chinese students were bussed in to drown out pro-Tibet and human rights protesters.  

Then there was the 2009 arrest of Australian mining executive Stern Hu in China amid the Rio Tinto espionage scandal; and Beijing’s fury when the Rudd government permitted Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer to visit Australia the same year. Beijing was also not pleased when Julia Gillard’s government joined with US President Barack Obama in 2011 to announce US Marines would be stationed in Darwin

An Amnesty International supporter and Pro-China supporter clash during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay.
An Amnesty International supporter and Pro-China supporter clash during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay.
PA Images

And while most Australians (79 per cent of respondents in the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll) view China as an economic partner, as China exerts its growing power on the world stage, more are seeing China as a future military threat (46 per cent in 2017, up seven points since 2015).

While some disputes are unavoidable, China experts argue the problems are exacerbated by a lack of understanding of culture and history on both sides. The issue of racism looms large, Macklin says.

“There has been a distrust of China in Australia for a very long time. Partly, it comes from the racism of Australia's colonial regime under the British," he said.

There has been a distrust of China in Australia for a very long time

“The colonists regarded the Chinese people as inferior. They attempted to run them off the goldfields of Victoria, New South Wales and southern Queensland. They invented the White Australia policy that stood in place for 70 years and prevented Australians from enjoying a friendly and productive relationship with our regional neighbours.”

Current problems: Foreign interference and understanding

The latest downturn follows ASIO warnings and a string of media reports about Chinese government-sponsored interference in Australia’s politics and domestic sphere; and the Chinese government’s angry reaction to Australia’s new anti-foreign agent laws, in which Beijing was singled out by the prime minister for particular censure.

China’s state-sponsored press lashed out in response, and it remains uncertain whether Beijing will take any retaliatory economic action like it did with South Korea recently, squeezing its tourism industry. 

Jieh-Yung Lo, a Chinese-Australian writer and policy adviser who is working on a book on Chinese-Australian relations, told SBS News he believes the two countries need to work harder to develop mutual understanding.

“China has a completely different political and legal system to Australia – not to mention the added layer of cultural and historical complexities,” Mr Lo said.

“In my experience and previous engagement with Chinese officials, they lack the fundamental knowledge and awareness of Australia’s political, legal and democratic systems, and vice versa.

“In my view, both countries should be mature enough to have an honest, open and frank conversation about these topics. ... And to do that effectively, Australia needs to make more of an effort to understand Chinese thinking and learn about the processes of Chinese policy-making.”

He said Australia’s Chinese diaspora was a key resource for bridging the gap and improving relations.

“Sometimes I don’t think Australia understands how fortunate we are to have such a dynamic, knowledgeable and active Chinese diaspora in our corner,” he said. “Many of our international competitors lack this foreign policy competitive edge.”

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch