- PRC policy toward Australia and New Zealand has been driven by three consecutive goals, diplomatic recognition, trade and people-to-people links and respect for the PRC as a great power.
- PRC state interest is front and centre of its policy toward Australia and New Zealand and this is determined by domestic conditions and its model of governance.
- Ideological entrenchment under Xi Jinping and the shift to US-China competition create a challenging environment for Chinese policy toward the Antipodes.
Australia and New Zealand are colloquially known as the Antipodes. The name demonstrates the importance of the United Kingdom (UK), from whose vantage point these countries inhabit a position on the opposite side of the world. For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the physical distance from Australia and New Zealand is less pronounced, but a growing gulf in worldviews presents a different kind of antipodal relationship.
In recent years, China’s relations with Australia have declined considerably. Political disagreements have led to a freeze in government to government communication, the introduction of punitive trade sanctions on Australian businesses and framing of the relationship in increasingly conflictual terms by both Australian and Chinese officials, scholars and state-controlled media. Relations with New Zealand have fared better but they too have run up against the same issues, as clearly expressed in the recent joint statement by the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand. Where Australia has been described as out front, New Zealand has quietly recalibrated the balance of opportunities and risks.
What explains China’s changing policy toward the Antipodes? Explaining the foreign policy of a one-party state is never simple. It involves reading between the lines of the public statements whilst keeping an eye to the actual behaviour of state and state-aligned actors. This commentary argues three consecutive goals help make sense of China’s approach to Australia and New Zealand since 1949. First, to establish diplomatic relations. Second, to grow trade and people-to-people links and integrate the Australian and New Zealand economies into the Chinese economy. Third, and more recently, to be treated with the respect befitting a great power in the region. This last goal has proved particularly challenging.
Unlike the United Kingdom, which recognised the PRC as the Government of China in January 1950, Australia and New Zealand both maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (on Taiwan, ROC) until December 1972. Moreover, each entered into the ANZUS mutual defence pact with the United States in 1951 to counter the spread of communism in the region. During the Cold War, they fought together in the Korean War (1950-53), the Malayan Emergency (1950-60) and in South Vietnam (Australia 1962-72 and from 1965 for New Zealand). This put both countries at odds with the PRC which had a goal to spread revolution in the region and placed them squarely in the so-called ‘imperialist camp’.
The PRC replaced the ROC in the United Nations in October 1971. A year and two months later Australia and New Zealand switched diplomatic recognition. The ‘week that changed the world’ in February 1972 saw President Richard Nixon visit Beijing to meet with Mao Zedong and other Party leaders. This marked the beginning of a new détente between the United States and the PRC opening the way to develop broader diplomatic and commercial engagements with the world. Chinese politics became less outwardly radical and leaders like Deng Xiaoping pushed the country toward an open door policy.
Trade and people-to-people links
Once diplomatic recognition was achieved and order restored following the chaos and revolutionary fervour of the Mao era, the focus in the PRC shifted to development. To this end, diplomacy was tasked with growing trade and people-to-people links and this became the main focus of PRC policy toward Australia and New Zealand. This started slowly and was interrupted in 1989 following June 4th as people in both countries were horrified by the crackdown on protestors. By the turn of the century, however, the PRC had rebounded and become an important economic partner for both countries.
A trade imbalance developed as both countries began to rely on imported manufactured goods from China. This was slowly addressed as China’s growing appetite for commodity products increased, particularly iron ore for Australia and agricultural produce for New Zealand, as well as through the successful conclusion of free trade agreements (New Zealand in 2008 and Australia in 2015). Trade with China grew from a small percentage (around 5%) of total trade to a 39.6% share for Australia in 2020 and around 25% for New Zealand. Investment from the PRC also grew, as did services like tourism and education. Immigration from the PRC grew steadily. Tourism, education and immigration have all been severely impacted by the travel restrictions put in place to control the pandemic in the Australasian bubble.
PRC economic engagement with Australia and New Zealand has been remarkedly successful at integrating their economies into the Chinese market. This accords with China’s grand strategy toward globalisation, which Aaron L. Friedberg argues is designed to grow China’s relative importance and enhance its potential leverage. This is also a strategy that has been beneficial for consumers and particularly for businesses in Australia and New Zealand, most notably the exporters of commodity products. Chinese officials and academia term this a ‘win-win’ situation and view it as a ‘prevailing trend of our times’. But in recent years, a number of issues have emerged as politics, especially in Australia, have dented China’s economic engagement in the region. Today, both countries are openly discussing diversification, and Australia is facing bruising criticism from the PRC and punitive sanctions that outside of iron ore have led to ‘a 40 per cent drop in goods exported to China since mid-2020’. International politics have returned to the fore of China’s relations with the Antipodes.
Respect for China as a Great Power
A third PRC policy has emerged in recent years as the nation has established its role as a great power in the region and as relations with the United States have deteriorated into overt great power competition. That goal is for the PRC to be treated with the respect befitting a great power. At one level this appears reasonable, considering the PRC is the most highly populated country in the world and the second largest national economy. However, at another level China’s emergence as a great power presents challenges for two of the foundations of Australian and New Zealand post-war security and prosperity. The PRC has failed to dissuade concerns in these areas.
Firstly, the PRC’s promotion of a ‘new type of international relations’ and a ‘community of shared future for mankind’, presents a vision of a region bereft of a role for the United States, if not a region actively antagonistic to the current role it plays. This is quite a change, considering the United States has been the key security provider in the post-war years. For Australia in particular, the growth of China’s material power, through economic links and the development of a blue water navy, has elicited concern about what that means for the balance of power in the region. This dynamic has been particularly acute in issues like the South China Sea and discussions of China’s role in the Pacific and the reaction to hawkish PRC language toward the United States and vice-versa.
For the PRC, there is a natural desire to transform decades of sustained economic growth into power and influence in the region and there is a logic to questioning the current regional order and the PRC’s place in it. This highlights the first challenge for PRC policy towards the Antipodes, an incongruence between the reality of the PRC’s increasing power and influence and a desire to maintain the status quo security order. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in late December 2020, “If Australia sees China as a threat, then the improvement of this relationship would be difficult.”
Secondly, the United Kingdom may be far from the Antipodes but the liberal worldview, values and principles that underpin its place in the world align closely with those of Australia and New Zealand. The PRC, however, presents a political culture dominated by a party that controls and promotes a worldview of state-led socialist transformation. This is a considerable challenge to manage as we have seen in disagreements over Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the termination of presidential term limits and the inquiry into the origins and handling of COVID-19. At its heart, liberalism is opposed to the Leninist ideology, making respect a hard ask for many, but not all, politicians in these countries. The prior PRC focus on promoting economic liberalism as the dominant way to engage Australia and New Zealand has been replaced by Xi Jinping Thought for a New Era, bringing to the fore an incongruence of worldviews.
Where to for China’s policy toward the Antipodes?
The PRC has led a highly successful policy to establish diplomatic relations and to integrate with the economies and societies of Australia and New Zealand. As the PRC takes its place as a great power, with the power and influence to shape the region, PRC policy is coming up against challenges. These challenges stem from Australia and New Zealand’s commitment to the existing security order and their aversion to illiberal politics. While some Chinese and Australian commentators have suggested a growing division in policy between Australia and New Zealand, these countries are not easily divided. To manage relations with the PRC, Australia and New Zealand need to carefully calibrate their policies based on the reality that is in front of them, while the PRC would do well to reconsider its illiberal turn.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.