Former PM John Howard says Australia and China’s relationship has hit a 30-year low, with the Chinese government’s aggressive need for power to blame.
Former prime minister John Howard has said that Australia’s relationship with China is at its most tense point in 30 years, putting the blame on China’s increasingly “aggressive” leadership.
Appearing alongside fellow former PM Tony Abbott, former foreign minister Bob Carr and other high-ranking diplomats in the Sky News documentary China Rising, Mr Howard described the situation as a “very big foreign policy challenge”.
“The biggest change since I was in office, and I was voted out in 2007, is the change in the Chinese leadership,” he said.
“That has been more aggressive.
“It’s more difficult now than it’s been in 30 years.
“The major reason why the relationship has soured is the more belligerent attitude the Chinese government has taken.”
While the tense international relationship between China and Australia has been marked by trade wars, political hostilities and aggression from China’s race for global domination, Mr Abbott noted it wasn’t always this way.
Instead, he said it was the active trade relationship between the two countries that in-part allowed the developing country to prosper.
“Our coal, our gas, our iron ore has helped bring about a half a billion Chinese from the third-world to the middle class in scarcely a generation, which has been a massive advance in human wellbeing,” he told China Rising host Peter Stefanovic.
“But for China I don’t think it’s ever really been about prosperity for the Chinese people, it’s been about power for the Chinese government state.”
As the prime minister who oversaw the China-Australia free trade deal in 2014, Mr Abbott has since said it’s not an agreement that could be made today.
“I don’t think we’ve changed, I think the Chinese government and its actions have changed,” he told the Westminster thinktank Policy Exchange in July of this year.
“I can’t imagine that China and Australia would contemplate concluding a trade deal today … because it is hard to trust a country that uses spurious pretexts to block our exports to punish policy positions it doesn’t like.”
Trade partners gone sour
Mr Abbott was referring to the growing trade disputes that have rocked 14 of Australia’s homegrown industries since April 2020.
The origins of the ban were triggered when Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an international investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic – a move Chinese officials vehemently objected to.
In response, the Chinese government implemented a series of import bans which continue to pressure Australian industries from barley, to cotton manufacturing, to wine and seafood.
Iron ore continues to be a point of key contention, with fears China’s dropping demand could cause a $3 billion hole in Australia’s budget, as a worst-case scenario.
“Falling steel prices and steel mill margins in China, driven by weak steel demand, are at the heart of the recent decline in iron ore prices,” said the director of mining and energy commodities research at the Commonwealth Bank, Vivek Dhar.
With annual exports of $136 billion a year, figures show that import numbers have dropped from a record 109 million tonnes in September 2020 to 92 million tonnes in October 2021, he said.
Looking at China’s trade sanctions, Mr Carr – who was heavily involved in improving Australia-China relations – said their behaviour shouldn’t have been exercised by a country that regards itself as a “great power”.
“I don’t think the Chinese trade punishment is worthy of a great power,” he said.
“I think China has a lot to learn about the diplomacy that’s appropriate to a rising power.”
Xi JinPing’s fight ‘a case of tremble, and obey’
In addition to Australia and China’s complicated economic partnership, another anxiety is President Xi Jinping’s battle for international dominance.
Describing him as a “Mao-like figure,” Mr Abbott claimed in China Rising that Mr Xi’s actions reflected his plans to ensure China becomes “the world’s number one superpower”.
“Just look at the actions, look at the words, and it’s pretty obvious that he thinks that China’s time has come, and for the rest of us, it’s a case of tremble, and obey,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that Mr Xi has echoed himself, announcing to the Communist Party congress in 2017 that China had entered a “new era” and one that would see it “become a great power in the world”.
“It is time for us to take centre stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” he said.
Despite the obvious pressures placed on the increasingly worn relationship between China and Australia, Mr Howard warned that international diplomacy was not a luxury that could be dismissed.
“You can’t ignore the difficulties, tensions and fragilities in a relationship with our major export destination,” he said.
“We have to persevere, we have to play the long game.”
And it was a sentiment echoed by his political colleagues, Mr Carr and Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton.
“We want peace to continue in our region, but the dynamic has changed. (But) war would be devastating, there’s no question about that,” said Mr Dutton.
“Even a conventional war, let alone a nuclear war, would be devastating. That’s why all of us need to take every action we can to prevent that from happening.’’
You can watch Part 1 and Part 2 of China Rising on Tuesday and Wednesday night at 8pm, the documentary is available via Sky News on Foxtel or to stream on Flash
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