research / ACRI Opinion

The future of Australia-China relations

January 21 2021

By Elena Collinson

Note: This article appeared in The China Story, a blog by the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University, as part of a contribution to 'Perspectives – future of Australia-China relations', on January 21 2021.

Given that Australian policymakers face the prospect of ongoing stasis in relations with China – a silver bullet is unlikely to be found any time soon – more thought might be given to how better to integrate the various dimensions of Canberra’s China and regional policies. The Opposition Labor Party has called on the government to ‘explain what their strategy is going forward’, yet have also demurred from offering up any substantive proposals for consideration.

For good reason, Australian and other policymakers in the region have had cause for concern about China’s assertive foreign policy turn and its over-confidence in prosecuting its agenda. Yet the fluidity of the current international environment does not allow for the promulgation of grand doctrines or narratives that alone can address Australia’s China challenge. All the same, an updated and realistic assessment of what Australia’s strategic priorities are and appraisal of the constraints it faces is needed in order to forge a new framework to guide Australia’s approach to China.

Both the Australian and Chinese governments continue to pay lip service to the descriptor of the bilateral relationship as a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, established in 2014. But it is no longer fit for purpose, having been emptied of any substantial content in terms of ministerial contact, and having been agreed to during circumstances in the past markedly different from the present. As such it needs to be rethought and reconfigured. This could be the first step towards a new assessment of the relationship based on the difficulties of the last three years but also the opportunities that still beckon for both sides to continue to harness and build mutual economic benefit.

A new president in the US could offer a change in tone from Washington, which may mean a slight modification of the confrontational approach pursued by the Trump administration. This could allow Australia greater manoeuvrability and breathing room within which to formulate a revised approach towards China.

Elena Collinson is a senior researcher at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.


Elena Collinson

Senior Project and Research Officer

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