It is often said that not a great deal was accomplished in the 35 months Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister, especially when contrasted with some of his predecessors from both sides of federal politics.
However, there is one issue where the Turnbull arguably got things mostly right; Australia’s bilateral relationship with China. Unlike his predecessors in the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments, who mostly adopted a non-confrontational and accommodative diplomatic stance with Beijing, Turnbull instead went on the offensive using a famous Chinese Communist Party slogan to attack China’s interference in Australia’s domestic politics.
Whether it was the right thing to do or not when solely viewed through the lens of Australia’s economic relationship with China is still a matter of great debate and the full consequences of Turnbull’s criticism of the Chinese government still remains to be seen. But what Turnbull did is show that Australia can and will stand up for itself when its sovereignty and democracy was threatened even if there would be far reaching economic consequences.
We Australians may be a relatively simple people, content to pursue the great Aussie dream in our own little corner of the world, but when push comes to shove Turnbull illustrated that we are willing to push back in defence of our democratic values and our way of life.
With the election campaign now in full swing, questions are now being asked of Opposition leader Bill Shorten and the Labor Party as to how they will approach Australia’s relationship with China, and frankly the answers so far have not inspired a great deal of confidence in their diplomacy.
In a recent talk at the Lowy Institute, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong warned that Australia would need to “redefine” its relationship with Beijing. While Senator Wong did not give specific examples of how a Shorten government would treat its relationship with China differently, she stated that Labor would not “pre-emptively frame China only as a threat”.
Frankly, China possesses the capability to be a significant threat to Australia and has previously displayed its willingness to exert significant economic pain on nations that it believes are not sufficiently complying with Beijing’s demands.
Despite the fact that Australia has not yet been the target of concerted campaign by Beijing to significantly undermine its economic interests, in the same way as other nations such as the Philippines and South Korea, Australia’s coal exporters are already feeling the strain as some key Chinese ports continue to delay or outright ban the landing of Australian coal.
Balancing Australia’s economic relationship with China and its security ties with the United States is always going to be an extremely difficult tightrope for any government to safely navigate. But if there is to be serious changes to the nation’s relationship with China under a Shorten government, the Australian people have the right to know what their plans are before the election to ensure that they reflect our collective commitment to our nation’s sovereignty and democratic values.
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