A truck sponsored by conservative lobby group Advance Australia shows Chinese President Xi Jinping casting a vote for the opposition Labor Party in Sydney, Saturday, April 9.
Brisbane, Australia CNN  — 

The faces of Australian election candidates are plastered on campaign posters across the country – but there’s one face that stands out, and it belongs to Xi Jinping.

The Chinese leader, though not a participant in any modern democracy, has become a familiar presence in a campaign dogged by allegations of foreign interference and partly fought on issues of national security.

Xi’s face is not only on billboards, his name has come up in press conferences, interviews, and election debates between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who leads a Liberal-National coalition, and the Labor Party leader who wants to replace him, Anthony Albanese.

“Xi has changed the nature of the Chinese Communist Party … It’s more forward leaning. It’s more aggressive. And that means that Australia, of course, must respond,” said Albanese during a leaders’ debate, in words that appeared to echo the government’s hardline stance.

Before the federal election campaign even started, accusations were being hurled that China wanted a Labor win. One week out from the vote on May 21, public opinion polls – though notoriously unreliable – suggest that it may actually happen, putting a Labor government in power for the first time since 2013.

How that may change Australia’s relationship with China has been a common question ahead of the vote. The coalition has suggested Labor will be soft on China – a serious accusation by a government whose defense minister recently warned that, in order to preserve peace, Australia must “prepare for war.”

On paper, it seems there is little difference between both major parties on foreign policy. Labor says it’s committed to the AUKUS security pact, the deal Morrison struck with the United States and United Kingdom, to the detriment of Australia’s relations with France. And both support the Quad, the loose four-way alliance between Australia, the US, India and Japan that is set to meet in Tokyo next week, after the election.

It’s not clear yet who will attend on Australia’s behalf, but analysts say that person faces a tough challenge when it comes to China – especially after a bitter election campaign that has put Xi and his intentions front and center.

Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison debate on live television ahead of the federal election, during the second leaders' debate on May 8.

The unraveling of relations

China was always going to play a role in the Australian election, as a regional heavyweight with significant trade ties to a smaller nation that it relies on for iron ore and coal, if not other sanctioned exports.

Xi’s rise to power in China neatly aligns with the coalition’s latest stint in government – both took office in 2013, and since then relations have deteriorated, most rapidly in the last six years.

Some of the angst stretches back to 2016, when links emerged between a senior Labor senator and a wealthy Chinese businessmen, prompting a closer inspection of alleged foreign political interference. Under then Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, laws were passed preventing foreigners from donating to Australian political campaigns, among other measures, and a ban was imposed on Chinese telecoms giants Huawei and ZTE from building Australia’s 5G network. After the 5G ban, China’s foreign affairs spokesman urged the country to “abandon (its) ideological prejudices.”

Relations soured further in 2020 when the Australian government – then led by Morrison – called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. China responded with sanctions against Australian exports, including beef, barley, wine, and rock lobster.

Charles Edel, the inaugural Australia Chair and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said China’s aim was to make Australia more compliant, but it hasn’t worked.

“It has had the opposite effect,” he said. “It hardened public attitudes in Australia and pushed Canberra to lead the charge against China’s coercive actions.”

According to the Lowy Institute’s 2021 poll of Australians on China, the vast majority were negative about China’s system of government and China’s military activity in the region, though they were positive about China’s people and Chinese culture. China’s tacit support of Russia’s actions in Ukraine has also hardened attitudes, and the Australian government has rushed to supply Ukraine with tanks, coal, and humanitarian aid.

While sanctions have undoubtedly hurt Australian businesses, the loss of the Chinese market forced some to diversify and they’ve found replacement markets. China meanwhile continues to buy Australia’s iron ore at near record prices. So in that respect, Australia hasn’t lost.

In fact, Edel says Australia’s tough response to Beijing’s coercion has created another model for other countries in the region to follow.

“Australia has reacted to a deteriorating strategic environment by investing in its own capabilities, increasing its cooperation with the United States, and reaching out to strengthen its connections with other countries in the region,” he said. “Pursuing a proactive foreign policy while investing in its own resilience offers a model for other states under pressure from revisionist powers.”

Chances of a reset

But there’s no consensus on the success of the Morrison government’s approach to China. During the election campaign, even as the coalition touted its superior experience in foreign affairs, Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, a Pacific Island nation that also has a security deal with Canberra.

Suddenly the specter of a Chinese military base on a nation just 2,000 kilometers (1,600 miles) from Australia’s shores became a live election issue – even as the Solomon Islands and Beijing denied they had any such plans. The issue was so contentious that in the first few weeks of the campaign mentions of China and the Solomon Islands outpaced that of climate change across Australian media, according to media monitors Isentia.

Labor slammed the deal as “a massive foreign policy failure” that occurred despite warnings that Honiara was moving closer to China. In the heat of an election campaign, it suits Labor to call out the coalition’s foreign policy failings – in fact, the timing of the deal was so opportune for Labor that Home Minister Karen Andrews speculated, without evidence, that it was deliberately timed by Beijing to fall just weeks before the vote – a claim Labor attacked as “unhinged.”

Early voting has begun in Australia's federal election ahead of the official polling day on May 21.

Both sides say “China has changed.” In recent years, Beijing has stepped up the militarization of the South China Sea, committed alleged human rights abuses against the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and clamped down on freedoms in Hong Kong, where police recently arrested a 90-year-old cardinal under national security laws.

But James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, said the Morrison government must accept some responsibility for deteriorating relations.

“Rhetoric and posturing and a lack of diplomacy has actually played a pretty major role in how we got there,” he said.

“We haven’t just protected our sovereignty. We’ve gone out on a limb in front of any other country in the region to, I would argue, be pretty provocative,” he said, citing Defense Minister Peter Dutton’s comment that Australia should “prepare for war” as one example.

Laurenceson doesn’t see relations with Beijing improving under a re-elected Morrison government. “I think they have given up on the Morrison government,” he said, but added that a Labor win wouldn’t necessarily mean a reset either.

“No one’s talking about going back to the way the world was five years ago. But putting our relationship on a less adversarial stance, I think that’s within our capacity. And I think Labor has options where it can make some subtle shifts in its diplomacy and that will make that a realistic option.”

In an opinion piece published in Australian media last week, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, said Canberra should not see “China’s rise” as a threat.

“The cooperation between China and the South Pacific island countries is conducive to people’s well-being on both sides and regional prosperity and stability, and will by no means threaten Australia’s security,” he wrote.

Where to from here

Under Australian law, there are no rules on truth in political advertising, so using Xi’s image on posters claiming he supports candidates of various political persuasions is entirely legal.

Xi’s face is not only on ads alleging he supports Labor but also on billboards claiming he’s backing a Liberal candidate, as well as at least one independent. Appealing to Xi, it seems, is the highest political insult.

A poster that claims Chinese President Xi Jinping backs a Liberal candidate.

Andrew Hughes, a marketing expert at the Australian National University, says Australia is known as the “Wild West” when it comes to political advertising, but the use of China in this campaign had nonetheless been remarkable.

“It’s actually more noticeable, I think, in this election than I’ve ever seen the use of a foreign government in election campaigns outside wartime,” Hughes said.

Hughes said the coalition was using China to establish the connection in people’s minds that “Labor equals fear,” though he questioned the effectiveness of that strategy with an audience with only half an eye on the issues.

“Most people don’t have that level of engagement with politics in the first place to make that messaging effective. Hence why (the coalition) is probably going a little bit more negative, and a little bit harder on things.”

Edel, from CSIS, said no matter who wins, Australia has a better chance of improving its relationship if it stands its ground, and that’s possible under either leadership.

“While there may be differences in tone and approach, both parties now support increasing Australia’s defense budget, working more closely with the United States and other like-minded countries, countering China’s push into the Pacific, calling out Beijing’s egregious human rights violations, and taking actions to protect Australia’s democracy,” he said.

However, Laurenceson said a calmer approach and the realization that Australia can’t dictate China’s relationships in the Pacific would go a long way towards putting the relationship on a firmer footing.

“There’s a track record of overreaction and panic, that’s for sure. And how does that actually help you respond?” he said. “Having a strategy with a goal of denying the Beijing enhanced relationships in the region is just ridiculous. It’s unrealistic. So yes, let’s take it seriously, let’s respond with a clear strategy. But let’s make sure our assessments and our strategy are at least based on reality.”