The Relationship between China and Australia

An Interview with Robbie Barwick

Australia is well known as having an easy-going and welcoming attitude towards foreigners but in recent years, their attitude towards Chinese visitors and residents has changed.

When the former Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, called for an investigation into the origins of Covid, he quite deliberately pointed a finger at China, suggesting, in very undiplomatic terms, that China was responsible. This came around the same time as an Australian think tank, Australian Security Policy Institute (ASPI), responding to the needs of its funders in the military industrial complex, produced a report claiming, incorrectly, according to highly qualified legal minds, that China was forcing the Uyghur ethnic minority to work and suppressing their language, culture and Islamic religious rights.

Coupled with a trade dispute which many Australians call a “trade war” because their media informed them it related to 4 products, coal, barley, wine and lobsters which China “banned” while they remain uninformed of two very important facts: one is that the overall trade between China and Australia has continued to rise since that period of time with China remaining both the largest customer and the largest supplier to Australia; the other is that despite only 4 products being mentioned, a great many more products, 85 in fact, have been under dispute in the World Trade Organisation and it was only these four that China had legitimate problems with while Australia had been pursuing these 85 against China.

Extract from a South China Morning Post Article

Australian media often reports that China is “buying up” Australia, but fails to note that the buying up allegation refers to many deals where Australian companies retain ownership and Chinese companies buy an operating but not controlling share of the business. Something which benefits both the Australian and Chinese business environment. China, for the record, according to Department of Foreign affairs and Trade (DFAT), increased its ownership to 3.1% with only 2.2% of that being the Mainland’s foreign ownership, that’s not all of Australia, that’s just 3% of the foreign ownership in Australia. While the USA owns 25%, the UK 17% and tiny little Belgium at number 3 with 9.5%. Also, interesting to note that DFATs figures lag a year behind news media and academia which report Chinese investments in Australia plunging. Readers may well assume the anti-China sentiment could be part, or all of the reason for that decline.

In other words, only half the story is being told and that half is creating tensions which needn’t be created. Link this to a political environment where the party with the strongest anti-China rhetoric feels it will win elections, and we clearly see a problem. These tensions have been escalated to the point that some people even believe China is poised to invade Australia! China has clearly demonstrated it will defend its sovereignty but has never in any speech given by any political leader, from Xi Jinping down expressed a desire to expand its territory. These words are misinterpreted and reported by media which thrives on clicks created by sensationalism; a think tank industry profiting from the fear threats present and fair-weather politicians who sniff the air and choose platforms to benefit their election prospects based on a public opinion swaying in a breeze blowing in this direction.

Anyone who speaks up to question the narrative is immediately faced with accusations of denialist, disloyalty, or worse, support for the “dreaded CCP” which is why Robbie Barwick, the Research Director of the Citizens Party of Australia, is a very rare breed of person who questions this narrative. In a recent interview, Robbie explained: Australia is a country which “benefits immensely from our trade with China” and part of the problem is that the credibility of the people making the accusations needs to be tested.

There’s been a period of 150 years of “yellow peril” in Australia and this has always been present, sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more “we’re in a period where it’s more”, said Barwick.

Australians need to put aside their chauvinism and genuinely acknowledge the good, in both Asia and the West. When looking at the improvements in China’s it’s quite obvious that: “a government that is so intent on improving the lives of its citizens, by definition, cannot be evil”.

The disinformation and the attacks on China by media and institutes, such as ASPI and the Lowy Institute, have definitely worked, with the percentage of Australians being anti-China being the highest it’s ever been. Fortunately, the average person in the street doesn’t think too much about China but, when they do, the prejudice does come out, as a general rule, people don’t act on it. However, Chinese people really do feel targeted here. The tell-tale is the way that politicians behave, Barwick explained, because they are pandering to public opinion. One good thing in relation to this is that: “it’s clear the vote of the Australian Chinese community, changed the outcome of the election”. This is due to the previous government going so hard in its Sinophobia. This has, fortunately, had a positive effect in the Liberal Party of opening debate on the topic.

The Chinese community is being singled out for doing what every community does. There are many ethnic communities in Australia but when a Chinese leader of the community guides their community in a certain way, it’s considered foreign interference under Australia’s laws and Barwick considers this to be a twist of logic allowing the government to “target” select communities which fall out of favour.

While individuals such as Vicki Xu have their own experiences which form their opinions, Barwick accepts there are always going to be differences of opinions but respects everyone’s right to hold them. However, when it comes to the think tanks such as ASPI, where Xu has spent time working and producing reports, Barwick concedes, he has criticisms: “it (ASPI) takes money from foreign governments and weapons manufacturers and has hyped up the so-called danger of a war with China”. Their credibility is lacking and this was exemplified when, without proof, they accused China of hacking, this included, at the time, the Australian census of 2016, yet, when investigated, it transpired there had been a technical failure caused by human error within the servers.

From ABCmediawatch webpage

When discussing vigilante types such as Drew Pavlou, Barwick agrees, Pavlou is a passionate believer in his cause but hasn’t educated himself on any aspect of Chinese history such as: “the remarkable lack of aggression China has shown throughout its history”. His lack of awareness is such that he believes the Communist Party of China can somehow control such institutions as the University of Queensland and even London’s Metropolitan Police, because both have, in his opinion, punished him for his anti-China antics. He’s also a destructive personality and, while no one in mainstream politics wants to work with him, they will use his destructive nature to generate publicity.

In terms of the future and where the relationship goes, Barwick is clear that the ball is in Australia’s court, despite what our new Prime Minister has said: “China didn’t change the relationship” he also adds: their building up of forces is defensive and in reaction to Obama’s “pivot to Asia” rather than any indication of aggression and Australia needs to find some independence from US foreign policy. Rather than cut ties Australia should use its special relationship with America to improve relations with China by pointing out how destructive the current path is for all parties. China wants to cooperate on economic development, its trade surplus is increasing and Australia can only benefit in both manufacturing and infrastructure development, creating a win-win for both countries.

The bottom line for Barwick, and his Australian Citizens Party is that they are patriotic Australians, they don’t follow the narrative but it’s not to pander to the Australian Chinese community or gain support from China, it’s because they see the flaws in the narrative. No one wants conflict but the current path is leading us in that direction. Voices from the Chinese community and sensible politicians will be a significant step in the right direction away from that course.

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Jerry Grey

Jerry Grey

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I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences