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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Chance to press the re-set button on Australia-China relations?

I was asked by the South China Morning Post whether Foreign Minister Marise Payne's remarks during her joint press conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following the AUSMIN meeting in Washington this week would help to improve Canberra's relationship with Beijing. I told the SCMP that Minister Payne's comments offered an opportunity for the re-set button to be pressed in the relationship between Beijing and Canberra.

The Foreign Minister had said Australia would make decisions regarding the US and China on a case-by-case basis on what is in Australia's national interest (see, for example, Foreign Minister makes clear Australia will not be boxed in when it comes to China or the US).

Minister Payne's comments were significant because they sent a message to both Washington and Beijing that Australia would not be pressured by either superpower to choose sides. Rather, Canberra would make its own decisions about China based on what is in Australia's national interest. The full SCMP article, with quotes from my response, can be read here: Must Australia choose between trade with China and siding with US on Hong Kong, South China Sea?

Of course, the SCMP only took a couple of sound bites from my full response. If you are interested, my full response was as follows:

"The AUSMIN statement was significant because it emphasised the importance of the strategic relationship between Australia and the US, as well as underlining a number of key issues for the two countries in relation to China, such as the new Hong Kong security law, the treatment of Uyghurs, and the South China Sea situation.
But Foreign Minister Payne's emphasis during the press conference that Australia makes its own decisions and would continue to do so sent an important message to both Washington and Beijing that we would act according to what is in Australia's national interest. This gives us an opportunity to build some bridges with Beijing.
Given the breadth of the relationship we have with China, built over 30 years of largely positive engagement, there is considerable scope to find opportunities to improve the relationship. It is in our mutual interest to have good relations.
Of course, both sides will need to work at the relationship; both sides will need to dial back the rhetoric and be more diplomatic in their communications, including on key issues of difference. If that can be done, I believe the relationship can return to an even keel."

It remains to be seen whether Beijing will take the opportunity and participate in a re-set of the bilateral relationship. Unfortunately, Beijing has already criticised the the Joint AUSMIN Statement for interferring in China's domestic affairs.

As I said in my interview, both sides will need to dial back the rhetoric and communicate more diplomatically with each other if the relationship is going to be re-set.

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