Pacific News Minute: Diplomatic Chill Deepens Between Australia and China

Jun 21, 2018

Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Andrew Robb signing the Free Trade Agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Minister for Commerce Gao Hucheng in 2014.
Credit Minister for Trade and Investment The Hon Andrew Robb AO MP / Wikimedia Commons

Australia’s main political parties have reached agreement on the controversial Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, which, when it passes, will further cool Australia’s already frosty relations with China.

The nationalist Global Times described China’s relationship with Australia as “among the worst of all Western nations.”

And they are about to get worse still.  

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that the new espionage law is not aimed at any particular nation convinces no one – least of all the Chinese. It comes amid allegations of widespread Chinese meddling in Australian politics in general and in Australia’s Chinese community in particular.

In a separate, but not unrelated matter, the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is about to find itself shut out of the project to construct a 5G cell phone system in Australia. Huawei furiously argues that it’s independent and not an arm of Chinese intelligence. But last year, Australia cited national security when it refused to allow Huawei to hook high speed communications cables from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands into Australia’s network. Those cables will now be laid by an Australian company.

Australia's Parliament House in Canberra
Credit JJ Harrison / Wikimedia Commons

Australia is also worried about China’s debt-trap diplomacy in the Pacific.

In April, for example, Canberra expressed concern that Beijing would leverage loans for port facilities in Vanuatu into a military base. This week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Fairfax Media that unsustainable debt could undermine the sovereignty of small island nations. Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye dismissed that charge as “absurd.”