SAN FRANCISCO —
Australia’s already cool relations with China have declined again during the past few weeks over a new spate of incidents, experts in the Asia Pacific say.
Canberra announced Thursday it would add military personnel to work more closely with allies despite China’s objections in late 2021. In February the West-leaning nation decried a laser that a Chinese vessel had pointed at an Australian military plane, and that month the government raised its budget for Antarctic exploration – another place where China is seen as a competitor.
“China-Australian relations are maybe even worse than U.S.-China relations,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the U.S.-based Rand Corporation research organization. “It just seems like the atmospherics around China (and) Australia has hit a vitriolic level.”
Australia will increase military personnel by about 30% through 2040 to almost 80,000 people, Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in a statement Thursday.
The increase is expected to cost $27.9 billion. It will help keep Australia safe as “our world is becoming increasingly uncertain,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in the statement. He said there would be a “particular focus” on Australia’s AUKUS security partnership with the United Kingdom and the United States as well as its sea and air capabilities.
AUKUS is a deal clinched last year to share military technology, including the prospect of nuclear-powered submarines. China criticized the deal as a possible source of nuclear proliferation.
On Feb. 17, an Australian P-8A Poseidon military plane was illuminated by a laser coming from a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval vessel, Australia’s Defense Ministry said. The ministry called the use of the laser a “serious safety incident” with “potential to endanger lives.”
A representative of the Chinese National Defense Ministry said the PLA Navy vessel had “maintained safe, normative and professional operations all along in the whole process when encountering the aircraft attached to the Australian Defense Force.”
“Certainly, the incident with the Chinese warship lasing our P-8 Orion has created severe tensions,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior defense strategy analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “I think it’s really made us recognize we are in for difficult times in terms of China-Western relations, even more so than we’ve been in the last few years.”
Also last month, the Australian government said it would spend $583 million in Antarctica over the next decade. That budget would cover aerial drones and other autonomous vehicles to map inaccessible parts of East Antarctica, the prime minister’s website says.
Australian media cast the Antarctic plan as a counterweight to Chinese exploration. Australia claims more than 42% of the polar continent and operates three bases there.
The Australian government wants to be seen at home as the keeper of a “pristine wilderness” that “can be visited” by tourists, said Stuart Orr, School of Business head at Melbourne Institute of Technology. He compared the Sino-Australian rivalry in Antarctica to the international space race, where achievements bolster public confidence in their leaders.
Not the only flashpoints
Australia and China have fallen out steadily since 2013.
Australia angered China particularly in April 2020 by calling for a probe into the handling of COVID-19. In November that year, China stranded more than 50 Australian coal ships near its ports, placed tariffs on a string of agricultural imports and sent out a social media image suggesting that Australian soldiers were killing Afghan children.
China worries most about the burgeoning Australia-U.S. alliance, analysts say.
Washington and Canberra meet regularly with Japan and India for discussions about control over the South China Sea – a waterway that Beijing claims as its own despite sovereignty challenges from five other Asian governments.
Pro-U.S. European nations have thrown their support behind the U.S. and Australia over the past year. Just this week the White House said U.S. and British officials “resolved to broaden and deepen their alignment and cooperation” in the Indo-Pacific region.
China and Australia have entered a spiral where one side’s actions spark a reaction from the other, analysts believe.
“China’s buildup is at least partially in response to … Australia’s own buildup, so with these (troop increase) announcements by the Australian prime minister, I believe China is definitely going to pay attention to that and all these ongoing military preparations essentially will be geared toward that as well as those by the U.S.,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Federal elections set in Australia for May could set a new tone for “long-term strategic competition with China” and establish its role in a “U.S. integrated deterrence strategy,” Koh said. China is especially watching any military-related developments, he added.
Morrison’s Liberal Party, which takes a tough line on China, lost ground last month in New South Wales state by-elections. That fate adds pressure on his ruling coalition to hold its advantage after the federal elections – and sustain his government’s stance toward China.
Xiao Qian, the Chinese ambassador to Australia, sought to smooth relations Wednesday when he met with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne in Sydney to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties.
“It is hoped that the two sides will work together to review the past and look into the future, adhere to the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and make joint efforts to push forward China-Australia relations along the right track,” Xiao said.