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What is necessary for a flourishing Australia-China policy?

By Sinclaire Prowse - posted Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Australia’s relationship with China has strengthened magnificently in recent years. The foundations of a productive working relationship have been formed and it is now necessary for the Abbott government to implement broader, longer-term strategies which provide greater depth in the political relationship for the future.

It is well understood that China is special to Australia because of the importance it has assumed in our bilateral relations, within the Asia Pacific region and in global standing. Understanding that Australia’s China policy operates in an environment that presents both great opportunities and challenges to Australia is key to effective planning for the future.

Any Australian government that has managed a successful relationship with China in the past has exhibited a fundamental level of understanding of the country. The Whitlam government was first to lead the way in China policy during the 1970’s, the Hawke government laid the political foundations for economic reform in the 1980’s and the Gillard government built upon this to secure high-level political and strategic communication.


These leaders and their governments took the time to understand China and garnered the deserved respect for doing so. The Abbott government finds itself in an important policy making position in the current juncture of the Australia-China relationship. A different conceptual approach to China has developed over recent years and is beginning to see previously held attitudes make way for a more multi-dimensional understanding of the country in strategic, economic and cultural terms. While great progression has been made, there are very important points that will continue to be significant when Australia thinks about China.

A critical misunderstanding that many in Australia and the international community have about China is the extent to which the leaders of the Communist party are preoccupied with internal, domestic problems. It is important to recognise that significant internal debate exists regarding legal reform and financial structural changes within China, which many Chinese leaders believe is necessary in order to see prosperity in the country continue. Australia’s China policy needs to recognise this and ensure it does what it can to help rather than hinder the process of China’s development.

A second potential misunderstanding in Australian China policy is that it cannot be focused on in purely economic terms. Stephen Fitzgerald points out that Australians “have become comfortable with the idea that the relationship with China is essentially commercial." Australia needs to ensure deep political and cultural engagement compliments this to create a strong, multidimensional relationship.  Understanding these two important points is a crucial part of the new government providing comprehensive China policy. In order to assess Australia’s future China-policy challenges and opportunities, it is necessary to look at three realms of China policy: strategic, economic and cultural.

Strategic Challenges and Opportunities

Australia can no longer be complacent about security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. The old pillar of Australian strategic considerations operated in an open and stable regional order, underwritten by an unchallenged US strategic presence. The rise of China and its impact on the Asia-Pacific strategic order changes regional dynamics.

If Australia wants to maintain a strong economic and cultural relationship with China, it is going to have to make changes to strategic policy which make it friendlier. Australia’s current China policy has two strands – engagement and hedging. This has resulted in the modernization of Australia’s military and the strengthening of the US alliance, both of which are antagonizing towards China. In order to ensure Australia can maintain a strong, open strategic relationship with China, more open communication has to be focused on. 


The Gillard government began this process in April 2013, making significant progress in providing a strong platform for strategic relations. An annual meeting between the Australian and Chinese prime ministers, along with annual cabinet level strategic dialogues are the first step in ensuring Australia’s strategic engagement with China is strong. But possessing a strategy is not the same as effectively implementing it and this can be properly done in the following ways:

  • The Strategic Dialogue established in April 2013 should utilise interested parties in qualified professions, such as universities and businesses. This will help create broader engagement with the Australian public and will tap into the China expertise which has grown significantly in recent years.
  • Developing a China-informed generation of Australian policy makers will preserve our long-term interests.  The government needs to establish long-term programs of consultation and engagement which look to the future of the relationship. This means placing an emphasis on research, dialogues and partnerships that have a clear direction for a shared future.
  • One of the most important facets of Australian strategic relations with China is to reassure them that our relationship with the United States is not threatening. Australia’s policy challenge here is about striking a balance.

Alongside these recommendations, a fundamental question will continue to be asked - whether there can ever really be any equivalence between Australia’s strategic relations with China and with the United States. This will heavily depend on how China’s security orientation continues to advance in the years ahead and will have to be vigilantly watched and assessed. Ensuring the economic and cultural realms of Australia’s China policy are well developed will further compliment the effective implementation of strategic policy. 

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About the Author

Sinclaire Prowse is a postgraduate research student at the University of Sydney and a non-resident fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. Her research is in Pacific security and threat perception and she is currently living in Taipei, studying Chinese on a government scholarship.

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