Australia, China political relations on the slide | Connect Asia

Australia, China political relations on the slide

Australia, China political relations on the slide

Posted 19 August 2009, 12:05 AEST

Despite Australia and China's inter-dependent economic relationship, their political links have been hit by a series of upsets, the latest being Australia's decision to allow another visit by Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

In response, Beijing downgraded its representation at a recent regional meeting in Australia.

Presenter:Linda Mottram

Stephen Smith, Australia's Foreign minister; Andrew Shearer, Director of Studies, Lowy Institute for International Studies; Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Opposition leader

MOTTRAM: Earlier this month, Australia hosted the annual Pacific Islands forum leaders meeting, with the Rudd government touting as a particular achievement the expansion to several additional countries of the traditional post-forum dialogue. But China's representation wasn't at it's customary vice-ministerial level. And it was a deliberate snub by Beijing over the visit of Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer. Australia's Foreign minister Stephen Smith.

SMITH: Chinese authorities made it very clear to Australian officials that they were most unhappy with her visit, most unhappy with her visit. And as a consequence of her visit they indicated to Australia that the proposed visit to Australia of vice-minister He to attend the Pacific Islands forum post-dialogue would not occur and that China would be represented by an ambassador.

MOTTRAM: Vice-minister He Yafei had indeed been in Australia only a short time earlier. The decision not to send him back was a decision with flow-on effects. Because the vice minister come again, didn't visit Australia, a series of other associated bilateral meetings couldn't take place.

Australia's conservative national daily newspaper also claims that China has intimated it won't co-operate with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's proposal for a new Asia Pacific institution. The Foreign minister didn't answer that matter when asked by his opposition counterpart in the Parliament.

Confirmation of China's overt expression of displeasure follows the arrest of Rio Tinto executives, including Australian Stern Hu, in Shanghai. China downgraded it's claims against them from espionage involving state secrets to commercial espionage. Some in Australia thought that may be a sign China was easing up on Australia. Others say its more likely China was reacting to unexpected adverse international responses. Either way, the arrests did follow on from dissatisfaction over iron ore price negotiations .. and it all came in the context of the vexed Australian debate about whether, or at least how much, Chinese sovereign investment should be allowed in Australia's rich resources sector in particular.

Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of Australia's main political opposition, the Liberals, says the vital relationship has been mishandled.

TURNBULL: I mean our relations with China are - well, not at an all time low because there was a time when we had no diplomatic relations with China - but they are at the lowest ebb they have been for many, many years and Mr Rudd has mishandled our relations with China and of course he boasted of his connections with China and how he would be able to persuade

MOTTRAM: A one-time adviser to the former Australian government of John Howard agrees. Andrew Shearer is director of studies at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

SHEARER: The government and I think the Chinese government too look to downplay any link between the arrest of Stern H u and other concerns in the relationship. I think what we're seeing now is pretty clear evidence of a series of steps taken by the Chinese government to signal their disapproval of a number of things that the Rudd government has done in the China relationship over the last few months.

MOTTRAM: Why do you think there's no sign of Australia being able to break through with the Chinese on the political front?

SHEARER: I think what we're seeing is a kind of vacuum, a curious silence from the government in an area that most of us would have expected to be a real strength for the Rudd government. The fact is that the Australian government, the Rudd government, hasn't laid out a coherent framework for our relationship with China. It's frankly perplexing given the fact that the Prime Minister is an undoubted expert on China, the relationship with China and what's happening inside China.

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