Australia’s Elections: The China Narrative

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Australia’s Elections: The China Narrative

How best to manage ties with China ought to be a central election issue, but the campaign narratives are focused on posturing rather than policy.

Australia’s Elections: The China Narrative

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right, and leader of the Labor Party Anthony Albanese shake hands before a debate in Brisbane, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Australia will have a national election on May 21.

Credit: Jason Edwards/Pool via AP

A red mobile billboard featuring an image of China’s Xi Jinping casting a vote for the Australian Labor Party has been spotted recently on the streets of Canberra, Perth, and Melbourne. A hammer and sickle accompany the words “CCP says vote Labor.”

This political advertising, if you could call it that, is authorized by a fringe party, Advance Australia. But with a federal election looming, fearmongering about China in Australia’s federal election is already mainstream.

It began with Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself when he accused his rival, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, of being the “Chinese government’s pick at this election.” Morrison went further, describing Labor’s deputy leader as a “Manchurian candidate,” a Cold War-era insult that refers to someone acting for the enemy. These comments were withdrawn, but Albanese too said that if people wanted to see a “Manchurian candidate,” they should look to the prime minister.

As one of Australia’s most important, but also most fraught, bilateral relationships, how best to manage ties with China ought to be a central election issue. But rather than debating the policy conundrum Australia faces – having no government-to-government contact with its largest trading partner – China issues have collapsed into contests over who has stronger national security credentials.

The fact that China now animates retail politics in Australia can make it look, on the surface, as though there are significant gaps between the two party platforms. The center-right Coalition government wants to campaign on its national security record, and claims the center-left Labor cannot be trusted with Australia’s security.  In response, Labor’s strategy is to minimize points of difference in a domain traditionally perceived as a vulnerability.

There is accordingly bipartisan support for most of the substantial shifts in China policy over the past few years, as well as more recent announcements on national security and defense also widely perceived as motivated by China.

These include but are not limited to the AUKUS agreement and Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines; Canberra’s interventions into critical infrastructure in the South Pacific; and the domestic manufacture of ballistic missiles. These decisions will cost billions and require future governments on both sides to invest in their success.

While these initiatives have bipartisan support, there are differences in priority and implementation between the two parties. Labor claims it would adopt a more considered and consistent tone in dealing with China, and not allow for domestic politics to infect rhetoric about China. The would-be foreign minister under a Labor government, Penny Wong, has criticized the government for “war-mongering” about the potential for conflict in the Taiwan Strait, for example.

On issues that are China-adjacent, a changed government would result in changed priorities. These days, all Australian policy issues – from the price of lobster to carbon emissions  –  are China-adjacent.

But tangible differences get little play during the campaign. This is regrettable, since policy choices regarding China and the associated investments in national defense will have decades-long consequences for Australia’s economy and security, well beyond the election.