For more than 20 years, Australia tried to maintain good relations with both the United States and China.
It was good for trade and peaceful regional relations. But on Thursday, with the announcement of a new security deal with the United States and the United Kingdom, which will see Australia eventually field nuclear-powered submarines, Canberra made its position clear – it has chosen Washington over Beijing.
By choosing sides, some experts say Australia has unnecessarily antagonized China, the country’s largest trading partner, while at the same time making itself overly reliant on the US for protection should tensions escalate in the Indo-Pacific.
In recent years, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has moved to embrace the US more closely as a security partner, building a personal relationship with former President Donald Trump and attempting to do the same with his successor.
At the same time, relations between Canberra and Beijing have been slowly unraveling, a spiral which only worsened after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic amid questions over the virus’s origins.
On Thursday, China reacted angrily to the new security deal with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijan saying the blame for deteriorating relations “rests entirely with the Australian side.”
Yun Jiang, editor of the China Neican newsletter and researcher at the Australian National University, said the deal was the “final nail in the coffin” of Australia’s relationship with China, effectively eliminating any chance for rapprochement, at least in the short term.
“Until there is a new equilibrium in the international balance of power, I think the relationship is going to be tense,” she said.
Morrison joined US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday morning, Australia time, to announce the new policy. The plan, which Biden called “historic,” doesn’t explicitly mention China but is clearly directed at Beijing.
Under the agreement, named AUKUS, the three countries will hold meetings to coordinate on cyber issues, advanced technologies and defense to help them better meet modern-day security challenges.
And the US and UK will help Australia build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines, a major boost for Canberra’s military arsenal, although Morrison said the ships may not join the fleet until 2040.
In a press conference following the announcement, the Australian leader described the deal as a “forever partnership.”
“A forever partnership for a new time between the oldest and most trusted of friends. A forever partnership that will enable Australia to protect our national security interests, to keep Australians safe,” he said.
The same day Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijan said Australia should “seriously consider whether to view China as a partner or a threat.”
Australia’s past success in balancing its relationships with the US and China guaranteed the country’s security and economic prosperity under successive governments.
In October 2003, then US and China leaders George Bush and Hu Jintao addressed Australia’s parliament on consecutive days. In November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Australia, where he praised the relationship between the two countries and was photographed with a koala.
Australia’s economy greatly benefited from its strong relationship with Beijing. Exports to China jumped from about $3.6 billion in 2000 to more than $74 billion by 2015. Some economists claim it was China’s lucrative market for resources which helped shield Australia from recession during the global financial crisis.
But in 2017, the Chinese government was outraged when then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced plans to crack down on foreign interference in Australia’s domestic politics.
The ruling Communist Party saw the move as targeted squarely at them and the relationship never recovered.
Calls by Prime Minister Morrison in April 2020 for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, a politically sensitive topic for the Chinese government, further aggravated Beijing. Australian exports to China began to encounter difficulties entering the country, including long customs delays and temporary tariffs.
As of September 2021, Australian coal, wine, barley and beef have all been affected by the trade tensions with China.
No way back
Some say the AUKUS deal has taken Australia to the point of no return.
Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, called it a “rubicon moment” for Australian foreign policy.
“It is Australia signaling that we don’t see a way back in the China relationship, that the best we can hope for is competitive coexistence, a situation where there is a stable determent balance in the region,” he said.
Under the AUKUS agreement, Australia will become the seventh country in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, the UK, China, Russia, France and India.
But experts said it will also leave Australia much more beholden to the US for its military capabilities.
Without a domestic nuclear industry, Australia will be forced to get its fuel from America, in addition to any training and technical knowledge in how to operate the submarines.
“In Australia there’s a lot of talk about sovereign capabilities and this basically goes against that,” ANU’s Jiang said. ‘We’re pretty much more dependent on the US for our defense.”
Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said in a statement that the AUKUS agreement was a “further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty” and could force the country into a conflict between the US and China.
‘Big and powerful friends’
Australia is far from alone in moving closer to the US. Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor said other members of the security alliance known as “the Quad,” India and Japan, are also working with the Biden administration to balance the rise of China.
“This is just one of many different kinds of deals and partnerships that are being forged throughout the region in response to China,” he said.
Medcalf said even Britain’s agreement to help furnish Australia with military hardware was a dramatic shift in its own foreign policy.
For the near future at least, Australia and China will likely settle into a period of chilly relations, with McGregor saying it was possible Beijing would look to punish Canberra over the AUKUS agreement, perhaps even attempt to reduce international student numbers in Australian universities.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Morrison said Chinese leader Xi had an “open invitation” to discuss the new agreement.
While the Chinese government’s reaction to the AUKUS deal was strongly disapproving, it was nothing compared to a blisteringly aggressive editorial published by state-run tabloid the Global Times Thursday.
The nationalistic tabloid warned if war broke out in Taiwan or the South China Sea “military targets in Australia will inevitably become a target hit by Chinese missiles.”
“Australians troops are also most likely to be the first batch of Western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea,” the paper said.
On Friday Australia Defense Minister Peter Dutton told Sky News such statements “make the case for us.”
“I think their comments are counterproductive and immature and frankly embarrassing. What does Australia want? We want sustained peace in our region. We want that stability.”
However, some question the wisdom of Australia’s decision to tie the country’s security so closely to the US.
Jiang said she believes it is still important for Australia to balance its relationship between Washington and Beijing, in the same way as other regional nations such as Singapore and Indonesia have been forced to do.
She said Australia’s turn towards the US is tied more to culture rather than to sensible foreign policy, aimed at ensuring the country’s “big and powerful friends stay in Asia.”
But Medcalf said the rift between Australia and China was inevitable, as the two systems of government are simply incompatible. He claimed the idea in the 2000s that Australia could have a positive relationship with China had been an “illusion.”
“Once China really took that totalitarian turn over the last eight or nine years, a lot of minds in the Australian policy establishment really woke up to the fact that our old relationship was not sustainable,” he said.