China and Australia: From Double-Digit Two-Way Trade Growth to Geopolitical Tensions


It would be a severe understatement to call Sino-Australian relations confusing because the more a casual observer researches, the more he or she tends to be bombarded with downright contradictory signals. In no particular order, here are just a few examples of information that seems to point toward one clear direction when taken in isolation but in aggregate, contributes to an overall picture where confusion abounds:

  1. In terms of trade, growth has been not just robust but downright impressive, with two-way trade volumes experiencing double-digit growth. More specifically, two-way trade (imports as well as exports, goods as well as services) grew from $195 billion in 2017-2018 all the way to $235 billion for 2018-2019, according to data made available by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. These numbers make China Australia’s #1 trading partner and while the same principle is not valid the other way around, Australia is a solid “top 10” trading partner of China’s
  2. However, trade volume numbers could be even greater if not for geopolitical issues which ended up leading to restrictive measures, most notably tensions pertaining to Huawei potentially supplying sensitive information to Beijing which led to Huawei no longer being allowed to supply equipment for the 5G mobile network of Australia on national security grounds, as per a recently-introduced foreign interference legislative framework. Needless to say, political tensions resulted, with Malcolm Turnbull being the last prime minister of Australia who visited China officially since mid to late 2016
  3. Furthermore, tensions between the two nations also pertain to human rights issues, with Australia officially condemning the treatment approximately one million Uyghurs have received, a Turkish-speaking Islamic minority that has received exposure as a result of the fact that China deemed it appropriate to “re-educate” the segment in question in what China considers “vocational training” camps for re-integrating people influenced by extremism but in reality, let’s just say pretty much the entire West is skeptical of this interpretation
  4. To add a bit more confusion to the mix, while Australia and the United States are on exactly the same page when it comes to #2 as well as #3 and while Australia doesn’t shy away from implementing measures which end up reducing trade volumes with its #1 trade partner whenever necessary, it isn’t exactly thrilled about the fact that the newly-signed trade deal between China and the United States on the 13th of January 2020 will lead to China importing more key goods from the US. While Australia is not affected when it comes to some of them (soybean, for example) in light of not being a major exporter, it will be on the losing end when it comes to natural gas, agriculture-related exports such as beef, wine and so on
  5. Cultural interactions between the two nations are quite solid, making the overall landscape even more complex. According to Australia’s department of education for example, there have been over 200,000 Chinese students in Australia between January and October of 2018 and, for a much broader picture, China is also Australia’s number one tourist source, with almost 1.5 million of Australia’s yearly short-term visitors being Chinese citizens
  6. Aside from the previously mentioned arguments, points of tension abound, from the detainment of Australian democracy supporter Dr. Yang Hengjun in China (accused of espionage by the Chinese authorities) to China’s frustration with the fact that Australian officials have supported the Hong Kong protests

As confusing as all of this may seem and actually is, Sino-Australian relations are actually not unique and, in fact, can be considered a textbook example of a dichotomous equation whenever it comes to China and nations with Western values:

  1. On the one hand, pretty much all Western nations strongly condemn China when it comes to most political issues, from human-rights related ones (the oppression of minorities, detainments which go against even basic international human rights frameworks, etc.) to geopolitical aspects (the South China Sea, the complex Taiwan equation, the recent Hong Kong protests and the list could go on and on) and it’s not just politicians that are voicing concerns. The population of Western nations tends to be equally skeptical, with for example Australians displaying the highest level of distrust toward China since 2004 according to 2019 data provided by the Lowy Institute, with slightly less than 1 out of 3 Australian citizens trusting China either “somewhat” or “a great deal” when it comes to its willingness to be a responsible international player
  2. On the other hand, however, Chinese money is hard to the point of even impossible to resist. As such, China represented a “natural” fit for Australia’s natural resource exports (no pun intended), with trade between the two nations becoming increasingly complex, as higher and higher value-added products are included in the mix. Let’s just say that even ostracizing nations such as Iran for even the most legitimate political reasons is difficult in light of the fact that even these countries can cause shocks on international markets (oil-related ones in Iran’s case, for example)… the idea that China can simply be “cut off” in a manner that is economically feasible is childish at best and ignorant at worst

All in all, just like when it comes to other countries that have a volatile but still more than economically meaningful relationship with China, “more of the same” will most likely continue to be the operative term moving forward, with politicians being essentially forced to execute a more or less hypocritical dance which revolves around a combination between condemning China for a wide range of political reasons but accepting its money nonetheless.

Would many of them like the idea of let’s say punishing China more severely? Most definitely.

Can nations such as Australia realistically afford the price of righteousness in this instance? Most definitely not.