Too much misunderstanding, too much imagination – that’s how one of Beijing’s top academics and international political commentators views the growing geopolitical rift between Australia and China.
With relations between the two countries becoming increasingly strained, Peking University Dean of International Studies Jia Qingguo said the debate needed to pivot to include more truth and more facts rather than myths and fabrications.
“It is a pity that it has blown up to the extent that it has,” Professor Jia told Australia China Business Review.
“I don’t think China wants to interfere in another country’s internal affairs – it is China’s policy not to interfere in other countries’ affairs and to oppose other countries’ efforts to meddle in China’s internal affairs.
“The Chinese government probably feels particularly upset when the Australian media claim the Chinese government has a plan to influence Australian politics.
“They are very upset, because to them this is not true.”
Economically, China and Australia have never been closer, but culturally and politically, it appears the countries have never been further apart.
Last year was intended to be a celebration of the bilateral relationship, marking the 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties.
Two-way trade between the countries is now worth $175 billion, while China is also Australia’s fifth largest source of foreign direct investment, totalling more than $65 billion, according to figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
But instead of recognising the important economic cooperation that has resulted in China becoming Australia’s biggest two-way trading partner, relations have soured, becoming characterised by a cross-border debate over influence.
Australian politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, have been vocal in raising concerns over Chinese influence, both in the political sphere and in higher education.
While introducing foreign interference legislation in December, which the Australian government has since repeatedly claimed was not aimed at any one country, Mr Turnbull’s rhetoric around “disturbing reports of Chinese influence” ignited a fierce response from Chinese officials.
China’s Foreign Ministry last year lodged an official complaint regarding Mr Turnbull’s claims, saying he had “poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations”.
Beijing has repeatedly told students they may not be safe in Australia, entrenching the country’s institutions of higher learning further into a debate in which they never wanted to be a part of.
More recently, Australian wine exporters have been reporting increased friction at Chinese points of entry, with shipments facing lengthy delays to cross borders.
Elsewhere in business, Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has been shut out of building or supplying components to Australia's National Broadband Network and could be barred from the rollout of 5G mobile services, despite long-standing supply relationships with telcos Telstra and Optus
Each escalation of tension has been reported with gusto, prompting Mr Turnbull to blame the media for the increasing friction.
It is the debate occurring in the pages of both countries’ biggest newspapers and on television news broadcasts that has caused the most concern for Professor Jia, who visited Australia recently to speak at a public forum hosted by the Perth USAsia Centre.
Professor Jia echoed Mr Turnbull’s recent commentary that the souring of relations had been exacerbated by the press, saying some media organisations had been motivated by sensationalism, rather than facts.
“China happens to be the hot topic, and the media wants sensational stories to sell their newspapers and get more hits on the internet, so they can attract more advertisement,” Professor Jia said.
“This, to some extent, explains why this issue has become so hot.
“And also, this is the age of populism, especially aided by the internet.
“People are trying to fan up people’s nationalistic instincts when such things happen.
“Sometimes it is politicians, for their own political interests, and sometimes it’s by journalists because they want sensational news.”
Despite the tension being reported, the Australian public does not seem to be too fazed by the debate.
The Lowy Institute’s recently released 2018 poll showed just 41 per cent of Australia’s adult population sees foreign interference in politics as a critical threat to Australian interests.
The poll showed Australians were only slightly more concerned about Chinese influence in Australian politics than they were about the influence stemming from Australia’s relationship with its biggest security ally, the United States, which is embroiled in its own tit-for-tat trade row with China.
High-level negotiations between the US and China appeared to achieve an impasse early last month, but US President Donald Trump nonetheless issued an edict to go ahead with new tariffs on $US200 billion ($270 billion) worth of Chinese imports, adding to threats of tariffs on an additional $US50 billion worth of Chinese goods.
Beijing stepped up its war of words with the US in response, vowing to hit back with additional import taxes of its own, targeting American companies listed on the New York stock exchanges, and saying the US’ protectionist policies were self-defeating and a “symptom of paranoid delusions”.
Among the Chinese, Professor Jia said many still held positive views on Australia, with the country known widely for its bountiful mineral resources, must-visit tourist destinations and strong legal and medical systems.
But for many Chinese, Australia’s close political relationship with the US is causing concern.
“(In China), there are a lot of positive views of Australia,” Professor Jia said.
“But of course, there are also people who think that Australia is very much pro-America, or a follower of America on all issues, sometimes disregarding the substance of the issue in an unprincipled way.
“I think Australia is more worried about how the US would look at them, rather than how they are looked at in China.
“The Chinese may think that Australia should know how to defend its own interests, rather than blindly following the US, no matter what.”
Australia’s non-participation in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet project, the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, was another possible turning point in the diplomatic clash, Professor Jia said.
“I think it would help smooth the relationship if Australia subscribes to BRI,” he said.
“You don’t have to do much, but it’s a good way to demonstrate your goodwill.
“Last year, (Japanese) Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe indicated his selective endorsement of BRI, and his speech induced a positive response from the Chinese government.
“That, to some extent, helped the trend of improvement of relations between the two countries.
“The Chinese government appreciates this kind of gesture.
“Whether you invest a lot in BRI or not, that is a different issue.”
In the business sector, Professor Jia urged Australian business to limit the damage, with any further deterioration of the relationship to ultimately hurt trade, and in turn, each country’s economy.
“You cannot be completely independent of government, but Australian business should have its own view on the issue and take a more pragmatic and reasonable perspective,” he said.
“They are doing business in China and know what the situation is there – business is much more sensitive to what’s going on in China than the people in Canberra.
“Of course, the people in Canberra have their advantages too, they have intelligence reports.
“But that is one source of information that needs to be balanced with other sources to get a more accurate picture.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently spoke of the importance of maintaining good relations with China, particularly for Australia’s business sector.
Speaking at an Australia China Business Council event, Ms Bishop said the Australia-China relationship had been underpinned in recent years by the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
Ms Bishop said that despite the negative commentary and the widespread debate, the relationship remained robust, and it was the depth, the connection and the breadth of the relationship that was most important.
“Do we agree with China on everything? No,” Ms Bishop said.
“Does China agree with Australia on everything? No. But it is a robust relationship where we can manage our differences.
“No two countries agree on every single aspect of foreign policy. We have our own foreign policy that we promote, in our national interest.
“China has its foreign policy that it promotes, in its national interests. There are times when there will be differences, but it is how you manage those differences that counts, like any relationship.
“I can assure you that the Australian government is committed to a strong and enduring relationship with China that is in the best interests of both our nations.”