<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare</i>

Illustration: John Shakespeare

China is angry at Australia, and when the doors closed on the meeting room in Canberra on Friday, its delegates let the anger show. The third annual Australia-China Forum was designed to strengthen the relationship. Instead, the Chinese used it to pressure Australia.

They had a specific grievance: the government's rejection of Beijing's announcement that it was asserting new rights over airspace in the East China Sea.

But they quickly turned the specific into the general, a full-court fusillade of complaints and urgings.

It was an illustration, a case study and a premonition of the difficulty at the heart of Australia's relationship with its biggest trading partner.

What started the ructions was Beijing's abrupt announcement on November 23 that all aircraft flying over the islands subject to its dispute with Japan needed to give prior notice to authorities or risk "emergency defensive measures".

The new air defence identification zone not only covered the disputed islands that the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese call the Diaoyu, it also overlapped the existing air defence identification zones of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

These three last week rejected Beijing's authority to make such a declaration without consultation.

So did the US. Flouting China's claim, it immediately flew two B-52 bombers unhindered through the zone without notifying Beijing.

China had committed a "destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region," US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said.

It was now in an invidious position - it was taking criticism from the rest of world for being provocative, and from its citizens at home for being impotent.

Australia objected to China's declaration of the zone too, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said, because Canberra was opposed to "any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea".

China's foreign affairs ministry countered by urging "the Australian side to immediately correct its mistakes so as to avoid hurting the co-operative relationship between China and Australia".

Rather than correct its position, Australia reaffirmed it. Asked for his view by a reporter, Tony Abbott said: "We are a strong ally of the US, we are a strong ally of Japan, we have a very strong view that international disputes should be settled peacefully."

Chinese officials believed the Prime Minister had escalated the disagreement merely by restating the government's position.

The opening session of the Australia-China Forum took place the next morning at the Australian National University.

Ostensibly, it was devoted to "advancing the strategic partnership" struck between Julia Gillard and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April. Instead, the Chinese delegates used it to challenge the value of the partnership.

The forum is a so-called "one-and-a-half track" initiative. This means it's a meeting between the two governments - the one track - but broadened to include non-officials such as business people, retired officials, academics and journalists, comprising the half-track.

China sent 19 delegates; four were serving or former ambassadors, one of whom was also a retiree at the vice-premier level. They wield little direct power in Beijing, yet all are influential.

Australia's 31 delegates included two serving cabinet ministers, three former cabinet ministers, and three serving senior officials.

Six of the Chinese spoke in the first session; of these, five challenged Australia's strategic stance. The sixth emphasised the strength of the trade link: the two economies were "cut out for each other".

As a participant, I'm permitted to report what was said but not to identify who said it, the Chatham House rule.

The first Chinese strike was directed at Australia's alliance with the US: "The Sino-American relationship has many high and lows but you may not be clear on just how good it is.

"The Americans sometimes want to put pressure on us so they ask their friends to put pressure on us. When they do, you should sit down and think about it." The US, the Chinese speaker said, frequently changed its approach to Asia policy, and "Australians need to realise the Americans change what they say without thinking about other people's interests."

In other words, if it were merely an American lapdog, Australia could end up alienating China only to be abandoned by its US master.

The second Chinese speaker said the relationship with Australia hinged on strategic trust; with it, there would be a cinematic ending of the Crocodile Dundee type, with two loving partners living happily ever after. Without it, there would be a Thorn Birds-style outcome, ending in tears.

The third said the conception of America as the strategic ally and China as the primary economic partner was wrong-headed; China and the US were both important to regional security. If Australia wanted a strategic partnership with China, it had to include both security and economic aspects.

The fourth called on Australia to beware a growing bellicosity in Japan, and urged Canberra to persuade Tokyo to change its position.

The fifth sought to relegate Australia's US alliance to history. It was "a product of the Cold War," he said. And although China would not normally offer its view on Australia's alliances, it now was affecting China's "core interests, its sovereignty and its territorial interests".

This is a tough critique, claiming that Australia's US alliance infringes on China's sovereignty.

This speaker went on to hold out a "dream" of China's relations with Australia, with trade trebling, tourism booming, young people moving freely between the two countries. But he said the dream had a long way to go.

And the responses? The Australians were on the defensive. Some firmly defended the US alliance. Some assured that Australia acted in its own interests, not America's. One challenged the Chinese to explain what they were doing to ease the tensions. Some tried to change the subject.

But the Chinese were single-minded. And their plans to ease the escalations in their border disputes? They had nothing to say.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.