2017 was the 45th anniversary of bilateral ties between the People’s Republic of China and Australia. It was not an ideal celebration of the relationship. Over the past year there has been heated discussion within Australian media and political circles about Chinese influence in the country, and its role in the world more broadly. Australian politicians have been public in their critique of China as a threat. China has reacted strongly, both at the official and unofficial levels. Much Chinese media has been scathing in its coverage of Australia.
It is fair to say that the bilateral relationship is at a very low point. But are bilateral relations set for a major break?
Things started to go dramatically downhill in the Australia-China bilateral relationship in mid-2017, when the issue of Chinese influence in Australia exploded into the national consciousness. A special joint investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Fairfax Media, aired on the popular “Four Corners” investigative reporting program, promised to uncover “how China’s Communist Party is secretly infiltrating Australia.” The program traced the stories of various individuals and their ties to China and concluded that Australians must all be more careful of “covert Chinese actions taking place on Australian soil.” Following that, Australian media, think tanks, and politicians, as well as other analysts, experts, and commentators have been intensively investigating the issue of Chinese influence in Australia. The impact is not just rhetorical. Former Senator Sam Dastyari lost his seat over the issue, and legislation directed at foreign influence is being introduced.
In December, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” in introducing legislation that would ban foreign political donations. Turnbull said foreign powers were making “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process.”
In response, over the past few months, Chinese officials have urged Australia to “abandon its prejudice towards China and perceive China and the China-Australia relationship objectively.” The Chinese ambassador to Australia called the claims made in the ABC/Fairfax report “groundless” and “an attempt to whip up a “China panic,” while China’s Foreign Ministry said the reports were “unfounded and extremely irresponsible.” In other statements, the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged an official complaint expressing shock at Turnbull’s concern over Chinese influence, saying he had “poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations” and deeming reports from the Australian media “irresponsible,” “without principle,” and “full of bias against China.”