When Mak Sai Ying arrived in Sydney Harbor in February 1818, he quickly adapted to life in Australia. He was the first Chinese settler to come to Australia and eventually changed his name to John Shying. He married an English woman and eventually became the owner of a popular bar.
The future pub owner would have traveled a great distance from Guangdong in China to reach Potts Point, a piece of land that extends into Sydney’s well-known harbor. This area now serves as a symbol of the evolving connection between China and Australia.
Potts Point is where the Australian Navy’s Fleet Base East is located, which serves as the primary operational base for the navy on the eastern coast of the country. In July, the USS Canberra, the first American warship to be officially put into action in a partner nation’s territory, was commissioned here by the U.S. Navy.
Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is engaging in a strategic balancing act by deploying a unique plan. He will be visiting Washington as a guest of U.S. President Joe Biden this week, as both nations aim to strengthen their relationship after the AUKUS alliance was announced in 2021.
As Albanese enjoys a luxurious dinner with the leader of the United States, he may also be thinking about his upcoming trip. He is scheduled to travel to Beijing in early November, making him the first Australian prime minister to visit China since 2016.
Albanese’s two recent trips bring attention to the delicate geopolitical position of his country, as China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific and aggressive actions towards Taiwan increase tensions not only in the region, but globally as well. As a member of both the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and the QUAD partnership, Australia has been a strong ally of the United States. However, it has also formed significant economic connections with Beijing, resulting in record-breaking exports of $102.5 billion to China in the first half of 2023.
Australia has chosen to embrace Beijing while maintaining a strong stance, as it cannot remain indifferent or irrelevant in regards to its relationship with China.
Albanese has spoken of his government’s efforts to “stabilize the relationship” between the two countries. In dealing with China, he said Australia must “cooperate where we can,” but “disagree where we must … always engaging in our national interest.”
As of now, the approach seems to be effective.
China and Australia have had a long-standing relationship for many centuries. It is said that Chinese traders had already visited the northern coast in the 1750s, even before Captain James Cook’s arrival to take ownership of the island on behalf of Great Britain.
Upon Mak’s arrival in Sydney, it marked the beginning of a significant influx of Chinese immigrants to the southern region. Currently, Australia is home to 1.4 million individuals with Chinese heritage, making up 5.5% of the total population. Chinatown, located in the heart of Sydney, specifically in the Haymarket neighborhood, serves as a symbol and reminder of the strong connections between Australia and China. The Chinese Garden of Friendship was established in 1988 as a tribute to these ties. Featuring two stone lions at the entrance and surrounded by a moat filled with koi fish, the garden has a unique blend of a city oasis and a fortified structure.
One of the rare Chinese gardens not located in China, as a friendly guide will mention. This is because the region of New South Wales is twinned with Guangdong, the province where Mak originated from in 1818.
In recent times, the primary exchange between the two nations has been in the form of goods, particularly unprocessed materials such as iron ore, coal, and gas being transported from Australia to China. In return, there is a smaller stream of manufactured goods flowing back. In June 2023, China received a significant 40 percent of Australia’s exports.
During the COVID pandemic, the reliance of Canberra on its neighboring country was highlighted, following the actions of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison in requesting an investigation into the source of the virus, which angered Beijing. This led to a trade conflict, with China imposing tariffs and restrictions on Australian agricultural goods and other resources.
Although there are still disagreements between the two nations, such as Australia’s prohibition of Chinese tech company Huawei’s 5G technology and China’s restrictions on copper and timber imports, there has been progress in their relationship. China has resumed purchasing Australian oil, beef, wheat, and barley despite maintaining certain restrictions. Additionally, a dispute at the World Trade Organization has been put on hold as China reevaluates its tariffs on Australian wine.
Albanese’s upcoming trip to China is largely viewed as an attempt to alleviate any remaining tensions. The indications are promising – just this month, Beijing released Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist of Chinese descent who had been held in China for more than three years.
Since our election, it has been our intention to establish a stable relationship with China, stated Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong after the journalist’s release. The advantages of our engagement can be observed.
If Albanese’s trip to Beijing symbolizes a key aspect of Australia’s approach to China, the other aspect involves establishing a strong military presence in the northern region of the country.
Australia intends to relocate approximately 400-500 soldiers to Townsville, located in the northern region of Queensland. This action is a significant reorganization of the nation’s military.
According to a representative for Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles, the Australian Defense Force must increase its ability to exert influence beyond previous capabilities. The spokesperson also noted that the Indo-Pacific region is experiencing the largest military expansion since the conclusion of World War II.
As a component of the strategy, the 3rd Brigade of the military, stationed in Townsville, will be restructured to carry out amphibious missions in conjunction with the Australian Navy. The 1st Brigade, currently located in the hot and vast Northern Territory of Darwin, will transition to a light combat unit with the ability for rapid deployment.
Nick Foxall, commander of the 1st Brigade, stated that his unit is constantly getting ready for potential conflicts. He also mentioned that within a span of 14 months, the brigade has been converted from a mechanized brigade to a specialized coastal defense unit. Foxall added that in his entire career, he has never witnessed such a rapid transformation.
Foxall also mentioned that the adjustments provide the Australian government with more practical choices at the lower end of the escalation spectrum.
While Foxall concentrates on the northern coast of Australia, other groups will be preparing more assertive choices.
The army will station its armored attack units and medium-lift aviation in Townsville. In the southern region, Adelaide will serve as a “future-focused” base, centralizing Australia’s long-range strike capabilities. Adelaide will also house the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and missile defense systems.
At present, Australia’s artillery is limited to a range of only 40 kilometers. The defense ministry aims to expand this range to 1,500 kilometers by acquiring Tomahawk missiles from the United States. According to Foxall, “Our army was well-equipped for past battles, but not for future ones.”
Australia hopes to make China reconsider the potential consequences of any military action in the Indo-Pacific by enhancing its long-range striking capabilities.
Betting on Washington
Australia’s approach to China also includes a third aspect: Seeking support from a strong ally.
Australia, as a member of the AUKUS alliance, will obtain three submarines powered by nuclear energy by the end of the 2030s. It has been announced that the U.S. will also deploy up to six B52 bombers with nuclear capabilities to RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory in late 2022. Additionally, Australia and the U.K. will collaborate to deliver newly constructed nuclear-powered submarines by the beginning of the 2040s.
The representative for Marles, who is the defense minister, referred to AUKUS as a “project involving the entire nation.” This is an accurate depiction, as Canberra predicts that it will require 368 billion Australian dollars ($235 billion) from Australian taxpayers by the 2050s.
Despite its size and potential to involve the country in a conflict with China, AUKUS has garnered unexpected support from domestic politics. The deal was initiated during Morrison’s term as the previous administration, and Albanese’s government continued it when they came into power in 2022.
There are few opposing opinions to Australia’s political direction, as seen in the government, media, and research institutions. However, Sam Roggeveen, a director at the Lowy Institute and writer of “The Echidna Strategy,” offers a different perspective on foreign and defense policies. He expresses concern about Australia’s increasing reliance on the United States for military support.
Roggeveen stated that our actions regarding AUKUS come with a high opportunity cost. He believes that Australia should prioritize building stronger relationships with Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, and other neighboring countries, rather than heavily relying on the U.S. alliance.
“He emphasized that our policy’s success is dependent on the United States’ dedication to upholding its dominant role in Asia. However, he also expressed doubts about the feasibility of such a commitment.”
Lessons for Europe
Australia is actively trying to persuade other nations to join its efforts in solving the China puzzle.
The government has been actively pursuing diplomatic efforts in the Indo-Pacific region. Since assuming office in 2022, Albanese has traveled to 11 countries in the area, including multiple visits to India, Indonesia, Fiji, and Japan. Wong, the foreign minister, has led a renewed push for foreign policy, focusing on strengthening relationships with neighboring Pacific Island nations and strengthening ties with larger nations such as Indonesia.
The primary objective of the government is to create a situation where it becomes more expensive and less beneficial for countries in the surrounding area to fully align with Beijing.
In a larger sense, Australia’s approach of balancing engagement with China and asserting its own boundaries could be a potential example for other countries to follow.
The European Union has faced challenges in developing a definitive strategy towards China. Similar to Australia, the EU has attempted to find a middle ground by referring to Beijing as both a collaborator for cooperation and negotiation, as well as a systemic competitor.
While Australia has taken a definitive stance in terms of diplomacy and military action, Europe’s approach has been less cohesive. This has created opportunities for Beijing to exploit and expand its influence. Countries in Europe have varying approaches to dealing with China, with some, like Lithuania, openly provoking by showing support for Taiwan, while others, like Germany, taking a more cautious approach driven by economic considerations.
However, it is still uncertain whether Australia’s attempt at maintaining balance will be successful. China has become increasingly assertive, particularly concerning Taiwan. Furthermore, the AUKUS agreement has created tensions in the surrounding area.
Albanese is anticipating a productive trip to the United States this week, however, his visit to Beijing will be under closer scrutiny.
UPDATE: This piece has been revised to include the exact number of military personnel that the ADF intends to relocate to Townsville.