Worsening ties with Australia, Japan seen as obstacle for China

Relations between Australia and China have worsened.
Relations between Australia and China have worsened.PHOTO: REUTERS

China's worsening relationship with Australia and Japan is an obstacle to its foreign policy goal of building stronger ties with Asean and the Asia-Pacific (Apac) region, an adviser to its Cabinet said yesterday.

The "lack in one major dimension... (of) China's relationship with the most major of United States allies in the Apac region - Japan and Australia" - can cause the results of China's foreign policy goals to be "far from what Beijing might expect", said Dr Shi Yinhong.

He was delivering the concluding address at the annual Straits Times Global Outlook Forum held online.

The South China Sea dispute is another factor that stands in the way of a better China-Asean relationship, he added.

"Disputes and occasionally low-intensity conflict over the South China Sea will continue as before," said Dr Shi, who is also director of the Academic Committee of the School of International Studies and US Research Centre of Renmin University of China.

He said that China's foreign relations policy priorities this year will be to work on its relationship with the US and Asean.

Run-ins between China and claimant Asean states, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, in the disputed waters increased last year, with tensions also escalating between China and Indonesia.

Relations between Australia and China have worsened over the past year, after Australia pushed for an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of the coronavirus, which was first reported in Wuhan, a city in central China.

Dr Shi said that China has since retaliated with economic sanctions and "diplomatic condemnation, which is without end in sight".

It did not help that Australia and Japan agreed on a military pact in November last year - which allows Japanese and Australian troops to visit each other's countries and conduct training and joint operations - in a move seen to counter China's growing influence in the region, Dr Shi added.

The Japanese military can also protect Australian forces if needed, under the pact.

On US-China relations, Dr Shi said the election of Mr Joe Biden as the next US president will provide more certainty to the US approach towards China, compared with that under outgoing President Donald Trump, but improvements will be "limited or even temporal".

Dr Shi said: "There will be no sufficiently significant difference between Mr Biden and Mr Trump... over the major issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, South China Sea, Xinjiang, Tibet, and China's religious and human rights situations."

The decoupling of Chinese high-tech companies from the US and law enforcement actions against China over claims of "subversive penetration... will continue in a largely similar intensity", he added.

For example, Singaporean Dickson Yeo admitted in July last year to spying on the US by pretending that he ran a political consultancy firm to target American military and government employees with security clearances, and then getting them to write reports that he would pass to China.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2021, with the headline 'Worsening ties with Australia, Japan seen as obstacle for China'. Print Edition | Subscribe