[Analytics] Australian election: was the Labor Party’s loss a setback for China’s interests?

Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia and leader of the Liberal Party, delivers a victory speech accompanied by his family. Photo: EPA-EFE. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Chinese state-run media and commentators seemed interested in a victory for opposition party led by Bill Shorten, who saw Beijing’s rise as an ‘opportunity’. Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party remains in power, experts say US-China tensions mean Canberra will soon have to decide between them. John Power, Meaghan Tobin specially for the South CHina Morning Post.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison may have celebrated his surprise victory in Australia’s federal election over the weekend by calling it a “miracle”, but state-run media in China saw little reason to cheer.

In an editorial published hours after it became clear Morrison’s centre-right Liberal Party had cruised to victory in Saturday’s election, the hawkish Global Times seemed to lament the result.
“This election result also means that China-Australia relations, which have deteriorated in recent years under the leadership of the ruling coalition formed by the Australian Liberal Party and the National Party, will continue to have uncertain prospects,” it said on May 19.

Before the vote, party mouthpieces made no bones about their preference for a government led by the centre-left Labor Party, whose leader Bill Shorten had welcomed China’s rise as a “strategic opportunity” and pledged to reset relations that had frayed after the passage last year of sweeping anti-foreign interference laws widely seen as directed at Beijing.

“There’s always a general sense in China that the Liberals would be more hawkish and the Labor Party would be a little more conversational,” said Merriden Varrall, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute think tank in Sydney.

On popular Chinese social media and messaging app WeChat, dozens of top verified accounts in China mounted a sustained campaign of negative coverage of Morrison’s government in the run-up to the vote, according to researchers at University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.

But despite stylistic differences between the parties, a fundamental divide in strategic outlook between China and Australia – exemplified in Canberra’s bipartisan consensus over maintaining security ties with Washington – spells future tensions in the relationship regardless of which party takes power, according to analysts.

Australia’s balancing act between the United States and China – its strategic ally and its largest economic partner, respectively – is an increasingly intractable challenge for any government, they say.

“The relationship between Australia and China has to be improved, especially with the trade conflict between the US and China going on in the background,” said Lin Hongyu, dean of the school of international relations at Huaqiao University in Xiamen.

During the campaign, Shorten promised that a Labor government would not view China through the prism of “worst-case assumptions about its long-term ambitions”.

Earlier, Shorten defended the decision by Victoria – Australia’s second-most-populous state, which is led by a Labor premier – to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative, in a departure from the federal government’s decision to shun the infrastructure-funding project.

Ahead of the election, Labor signalled it could be more flexible in its approach to Beijing than the government, said Andrea Myles, co-founder of the China Australia Millennial Project, which builds relationships between early-career professionals in both nations.

“When it comes to the Liberal Party, the arguments get pretty rigid pretty quickly, and that’s not really a place you want to be negotiating with China from,” Myles said.

As a minister in former premier Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet, Morrison was at the forefront of a number of key policy decisions that strained relations with Beijing.

During a brief stint as home affairs minister, his last post before taking over the prime ministership, Morrison signed off on the decision to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from any involvement in Australia’s planned 5G network.

As treasurer in 2016, Morrison vetoed the sale of electricity supplier Ausgrid, based in the state of New South Wales, to Beijing-run State Grid Corp and Hong Kong-listed Cheung Kong Infrastructure on undisclosed national security grounds.

But since taking the top job from Turnbull following an internal Liberal Party leadership coup last August, Morrison has attempted to draw a line under the tensions by making overtures to Beijing.
Last November, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham and Foreign Minister Marise Payne became the first Australian ministers to visit China in a year after Beijing froze diplomatic ties over claims of Chinese meddling in Australian politics.

The same month, Morrison insisted Australia would not “choose between [its] partners” after US Vice-President Mike Pence delivered a speech railing against “empire and aggression” in the Asia-Pacific, in a shot widely seen as aimed at Beijing.

In March, Morrison’s government spent A$44 billion (US$30.5 billion) to launch the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, intended to “turbocharge” engagement with China.

However, Australia’s efforts to reap the benefits of engagement with China are likely to become increasingly difficult to balance with its alliance with the US, as Washington and Beijing ramp up their global bids for strategic dominance.

Euan Graham, executive director of Melbourne-based La Trobe University’s Asia engagement programme, said it was unrealistic for Australia to claim it did not have to choose between the two.

“That’s just not tenable any more, given the deterioration in the US-China relationship. [Canberra] needs to update that in a way that’s more credible and saleable to its partners and the electorate,” Graham said.

Varrall from the Lowy Institute also said Australia might have to pick a side in the near future. “That’s not because of anything about Australia or the Australia-China relationship, that’s because of that relationship the US and China.”

Myles from the China Australia Millennial Project said it would be a mistake for Australia not to capitalise on the benefits of growing engagement with China.

“There are many ways Australia could get its relationship with China wrong,” she said. “I’ve never seen people more miserable to do business than our politicians when it comes to China.”

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