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For more than 20 years, Australia tried to maintain good relations with both the United States and China.
It was good for trade and peaceful regional relations. But on Thursday, with the announcement of a new security deal with the United States and the United Kingdom, which will see Australia eventually field nuclear-powered submarines, Canberra made its position clear — it has chosen Washington over Beijing.
By choosing sides, some experts say Australia has unnecessarily antagonized China, the country’s largest trading partner, while at the same time making itself overly reliant on the US for protection should tensions escalate in the Indo-Pacific.
In recent years, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has moved to embrace the US more closely as a security partner, building a personal relationship with former President Donald Trump and attempting to do with same with his successor.
At the same time, relations between Canberra and Beijing have been slowly unraveling, a spiral which only worsened after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic amid questions over the virus’s origins.
On Thursday, China reacted angrily to the new security deal with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijan saying the blame for deteriorating relations “rests entirely with the Australian side.”
Yun Jiang, editor of the China Neican newsletter and researcher at the Australian National University, said the deal was the “final nail in the coffin” of Australia’s relationship with China, effectively eliminating any chance for rapprochement, at least in the short term.
“Until there is a new equilibrium in the international balance of power, I think the relationship is going to be tense,” she said.
Morrison joined US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday morning, Australia time, to announce the new policy. The plan, which Biden called “historic,” doesn’t explicitly mention China but is clearly directed at Beijing.
Under the agreement, named AUKUS, the three countries will hold meetings to coordinate on cyber issues, advanced technologies and defense to help them better meet modern-day security challenges.
And the US and UK will help Australia build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines, a major boost for Canberra’s military arsenal, although Morrison said the ships may not join the fleet until 2040.
In a press conference following the announcement, the Australian leader described the deal as a “forever partnership.”
“A forever partnership for a new time between the oldest and most trusted of friends. A forever partnership that will enable Australia to protect our national security interests, to keep Australians safe,” he said.
The same day Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijan said Australia should “seriously consider whether to view China as a partner or a threat.”
Australia’s past success in balancing its relationships with the US and China guaranteed the country’s security and economic prosperity under successive governments.
In October 2003, then US and China leaders George Bush and Hu Jintao addressed Australia’s parliament on consecutive days. In November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Australia, where he praised the relationship between the two countries and was photographed with a koala.
Australia’s economy greatly benefited from its strong relationship with Beijing. Exports to China jumped from about $3.6 billion in 2000 to more than $74 billion by 2015. Some economists claim it was China’s lucrative market for resources which helped shield Australia from recession during the global financial crisis.
But in 2017, the Chinese government was outraged when then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced plans to crack down on foreign interference in Australia’s domestic politics.
The ruling Communist Party saw the move as targeted squarely at them and the relationship never recovered.
Calls by Prime Minister Morrison in April 2020 for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, a politically sensitive topic for the Chinese government, further aggravated Beijing. Australian exports to China began to encounter difficulties entering the country, including long customs delays and temporary tariffs.
As of September 2021, Australian coal, wine, barley and beef have all been affected by the trade tensions with China.