research / Briefing and working papers

Benchmarking the state of Australia’s diplomatic engagement with the PRC

January 27 2022

By Ethan Pooley and James Laurenceson

Key takeaways

- Diplomatic engagement provides a means for government ministers and officials to press Australia’s interests. It is widely appreciated that part of the fallout from political tensions between Canberra and Beijing has been fewer opportunities for diplomatic interactions with counterparts in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the extent to which this has occurred and whether Australia is or isn’t an outlier in this respect has not been systematically studied.

- This brief presents evidence that over the period January 2016 to August 2021 Australia had fewer diplomatic interactions with the PRC than 10 other countries that Canberra cites as being ‘like-minded’ or partners of regional significance. While not an outlier in 2016, by 2020 Australia was the singular exception in having zero interactions. The paucity of Australian diplomatic interactions applied irrespective of the seniority level of PRC counterpart.

- The state of diplomatic engagement is not the be all and end all of the bilateral relationship.  Much valuable engagement continues in the business, arts and culture and people-to-people realms. Nonetheless, diplomatic estrangement brings costs and what is clear is that Australia cannot draw comfort from peers finding themselves in the same predicament. This fact might prompt reflection in Canberra on whether lessons can be drawn from how these peers manage their own relations with Beijing.

Ethan Pooley is an undergraduate student majoring in Social and Political Sciences and Chinese Language and Culture at the University of Technology Sydney.

Professor James Laurenceson is Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.