‘Locked in a spiral’: What’s next in Australia’s feud with China?

Even before he took office, Anthony Albanese admitted that China would be a “challenge”.

A little more than a month since the federal election, that prediction has come true.

Despite hopes a new government could mean a reset of relations, China has continued to push for a heightened presence in the Indo-Pacific, offered a sympathetic shoulder to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine and persevered with trade sanctions on a raft of Australian exports.

Meanwhile, a Chinese state media editorial last month said hopes of Albanese resetting ties were “diminishing by the day”.

Canberra and Beijing have already been embroiled in a diplomatic standoff for more than two years – so where does it end?

Albanese’s new tone
Figurative alarm bells rang in Australia in April when China signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands, fewer than 2000km from Australia’s coastline.

Although both the Solomons and China denied there were any plans for the latter to build a military base, critics of former prime minister Scott Morrison said he’d “dropped the ball”.

When reports of the security agreement emerged, former foreign minister Marise Payne was not deployed to the Pacific. Instead, junior minister Zed Seselja made the journey to ask the Solomon Islands to “respectfully” consider canning the deal.

Pen would be put to paper to confirm the agreement days later.

Malcolm Davis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says the Indo-Pacific is a diplomatic battleground – and the security deal affirms that.

“When you read the deal, it explicitly states that China will establish a facility ashore to support visits by Chinese naval vessels and coastguard vessels,” he said.

“That facility will be manned by Chinese personnel including Chinese army personnel. The base itself, the port, would need to be supported from China via Chinese transport aircraft on a regular basis.

“There’s an old saying of, ‘If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck’.”

With the agreement with the Solomons already signed, there were concerns China would attempt to replicate that with other Pacific nations.

So, within days of winning the election, Labor did something its predecessor neglected to do – it deployed its foreign minister.

Penny Wong vowed that Australia would listen more closely to the concerns of Pacific island nations.

“The triple challenges of climate, COVID and strategic contest will challenge us in new ways, we understand that the security of any one Pacific family member rests on security for all,” Wong said in a speech in Fiji.

“I commit to working with, and listening to, this generation of Pacific leaders to navigate these challenges together. Australia will remain a critical development partner for the Pacific family in the years ahead.”

And Albanese vowed to reverse cuts to foreign aid – pledging $525 million over four years as part of his election campaign.

“International aid is not only the right thing to do for developing countries, it is in our national interest to engage and to provide support to developing nations,” Albanese said.

“Under my government, there will be front and centre support.”

ANU research fellow Dr Benjamin Herscovitch told 7NEWS.com.au the election of a new government offers an opportunity to mend the relationship with China.

“There has been a big shift in the way in which the new Australian government talks about China,” Herscovitch said.

“The previous Australian defence minister regularly made comparisons between China today and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the military threat posed by those two countries.

“Of course, that really frustrated Beijing and that led to the Chinese government to be very critical of the previous government.

“The current Australian defence minister (Richard Marles) doesn’t make those kinds of comparisons at all. He is very comfortable talking about how significant China’s military buildup is and the possible dangerous strategic implications of that.”

Countries still ‘deeply divided’
But while the Albanese government has taken a different approach, navigating the relationship is still a balancing act.

We’re still very far apart on key humanitarian issues and, to truly make a dent in the tensions, one side would have to make a significant concession to the other, Herscovitch said.

The two nations are still “deeply, deeply divided” on a range of fundamental policy and political questions, he said, including China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, accusations of systemic human rights abuses in China against ethnic minorities and China’s growing security engagement in the South Pacific.

Even the war in Ukraine is compounding the problem, Herscovitch says.

“I think Australian ministers and probably the Australian public at large see China as, to an extent, aiding and abetting Russia in its illegal war of aggression in Ukraine,” he said.

“And then from Beijing’s point of view, China sees Australia as becoming more deeply militarily intertwined with the US with things like the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine agreement. That will only heighten the level of suspicion of Australia in China.

“So, we’re locked in a spiral of mutual suspicion.”

Herscovitch says that, like Morrison, Albanese will have to strike a balance with China. It remains Australia’s largest trading partner despite tensions – but any kowtowing may be interpreted as him being a pushover.

So, what happens next?

Herscovitch said that to understand what the next phase of the stoush may be, it was important to recognise what China’s goal is.

“I think we’re in the midst right now of seeing China being able to devote more and more resources to achieving its really broad, big ambitious objectives in the Indo-Pacific at large, but also right around the globe,” he said.

“And it has huge ramifications for our particular region in that, just to name a few of China’s goals, Beijing is in the business of building a military which will be truly a world-class military by mid-century.”

Herscovitch said China would be aiming to project power right around the globe – and into Australia’s immediate neighbourhood, likely meaning a greater People’s Liberation Army presence in South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

“That makes me think that we’re not likely to see anything resembling a dramatic reset in the relationship between the two countries,” he said.

“We’re probably going to see a slightly warmer relationship but, with all of these big significant, disagreements dragging the relationship down.”