The last decade has seen a steady deterioration in relations between Australia and China. Over the last three years the Morrison government became increasingly shrill in its criticisms of Beijing. The "drums of war are beating" comments by Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo were a dramatic departure from practiced diplomacy and slammed shut Chinese doors to Australia. In its dying days the Morrison government continued to stoke fear and division in the Australia community over the security threat China posed to Australia. Then-PM Morrison announced an unenforceable "red line" over China's possible establishment of a military base in the Solomons but could not elaborate.
China responded to the amplified criticism with typically aggressive actions. The security agreement was signed with the Solomons Islands and most recently, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a personal trip to 10 Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to negotiate additional agreements on economic and security issues. China always plays a "long game" and no doubt plans for agreements in the Pacific have been under development for some time. The timing of these actions both in response to dramatic, loud criticism from Australia and the calling of the federal election was, however, unlikely to have been coincidental.
Australia and China both carry baggage with them when they seek to influence countries in the Pacific region. Australia has not been seen to be genuine in its support for the efforts of the PICs to combat the effects of climate change as it has not ordered its own house due to the past climate wars. China is seen to be trying to buy strategic influence through initiatives such as its Belt and Road plan. As the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter China is seen by many as the source of the existential threat to the PICs. Australia is seen as providing the fossil fuels that create this real climate crisis of rising sea levels and temperatures and extreme weather events in the Pacific.
The incoming Albanese government also has concerns about China. China's push for more bilateral agreements with PICs and broader regional agreements prompted an immediate response. The newly minted Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, was urgently dispatched to visit Fiji to present Australia's new approach to our region and to climate change.
In statesman like fashion, however, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama of Fiji has drawn a real "red line" for all PICs when he stated that: Pacific nations were not interested in geopolitical point scoring given the threats (to all PICS) of climate change and the pandemic. Both Australia and China need to understand this position and work accordingly. The PICs are not going to be pushed around or taken for granted.
Restoring workable relations between Australia and China will not be an easy job given the fracturing that has occurred in the past decade. China's trade war with Australia has been very damaging. Australia's political rhetoric has been used carelessly for domestic political purposes. A new Australian government gives a chance for a reset. China's aggressive pursuit of bilateral and regional agreements with the PICs has been rebuffed with only limited successes being achieved. They might also now be open to a reset.
Paradoxically, mitigating climate change effects in the Pacific may be just the dialogue that is needed to allow Australia and China to begin to establish a workable relationship and, in so doing, make a serious contribution to securing the future of the PICs. China is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The Albanese government is promising serious action to reduce emissions and examine the future of coal and gas extraction operations in a move forward to a carbon free economy. Penny Wong has made a real impact for good with a very successful visit to the Pacific where she clearly articulated the importance Australia now attaches to combatting climate change. The PICs have welcomed this change.
A collaboration on climate change related initiatives in the Pacific between Australia and China could provide a platform for constructive relationships to develop between our two countries. Neither China nor Australia can claim leadership in this field as they have both been laggards. Both countries have serious ground to make up in tackling climate change. The PICs, on the other hand, have no time to waste. They are being seriously impacted by rising sea levels and extreme storms now.
Strategic relationships are built on responding authentically to genuine needs. Helping the Pacific community respond to climate change while also being prepared to collaborate with China on this urgent issue might just become a win-win-win for all.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.