Australia’s attempts to rebuild Beijing relationship hit snag

Antagonistic statements by top media and political figures in Australia and China have undermined attempts by Canberra to rebuild its relationship with Beijing after months of diplomatic tension.

Chinese state media tabloid Global Times, known for its hawkish statements on government policy, said in an editorial Wednesday a planned visit by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should be postponed “to make Australia pay for its arrogant attitudes.”

“China just needs to slow their relationship for a period. For example, it will not be necessary for the Australian Prime Minister to visit China this year. In fact, he could visit a few years later,” the editorial said, adding ministerial visits could also be postponed.

Turnbull said in a press conference last week he would be visiting China “later in the year.”

Less than a day earlier, Australian politician Andrew Hastie, who is also the Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, accused a wealthy Australian Chinese political donor of funding the bribery of a senior United Nations official.

Hastie made the claims in federal parliament, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, which allows politicians to make potentially defamatory comments with legal immunity.

The provocative statements won’t help improve Australia-China relations, which have deteriorated since Canberra proposed new anti-foreign interference laws that China believes are aimed at Beijing.

Speaking to reporters at an event on Wednesday, Australian Turnbull claimed the relationship between the two countries was solid.

“We have a strong relationship, it’s a frank one, Julie had a good meeting with her counterpart in Buenos Aires, trade is growing,” he said. “We have a good frank relationship with China, it’s a very strong one.”

Turnbull has recently been working hard to appease Beijing, saying during an interview with Sky News in February China would never be considered a military threat. “We don’t see the region through what is frankly an out-of-date Cold War prism,” he said.

Warring statements

More signs of an uneasy relationship emerged Sunday when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Argentina.

When both were asked about the meeting afterward, there were stark differences in their interpretation of the discussion.

Talking to CNN-affiliate Sky News on Tuesday, Bishop said the meeting had been “very warm and candid.”

“I have known Foreign Minister Wang Yi for a long time now. I think this is our twelfth formal bilateral meeting but we’ve obviously seen each other on many other more informal occasions. It was a really good and positive meeting,” she said.

But the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, released the same day, took a slightly chiller tone. The statement said Australia had to “break away from traditional thinking” if it wanted to improve the relationship between the two countries.

“(Australia should) take off the tinted glasses and look at China’s development from a positive angle, and push forward the bilateral cooperation rather than dampen the prospect of relations,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in Tuesday’s statement.

It added Bishop had blamed “negative reports by Australian media” for the recent troubles between Canberra and Beijing, saying the articles were wrong and did not represent the Australian government’s position.

On Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull said the Chinese Foreign Ministry would make whatever statements it wishes. “We have a free media, a vibrant media, dare I say it,” he said.

Backlash to new laws

The chill between Australia and China began in December last year, when the Turnbull government announced it would be introducing a series of new laws to limit foreign influence in Australia.

The proposals would ban all foreign political donations, criminalize attempts by foreign actors to influence the government, and give law enforcement agencies greater powers.

The laws have still not passed, with some parts currently being reviewed by the country’s parliamentary committees.

The legislation was proposed after the resignation of opposition Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, after it emerged he had close ties to a Chinese-Australian businessman who donated large amounts of money to the country’s major political parties.

While Turnbull has insisted the laws weren’t targeted at any particular country, the Chinese government and state media saw them as a challenge laid down to Beijing.

A series of angry editorials and opinion pieces in Chinese state media labeled the laws “disgraceful” and “absurd,” while Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in February that remarks about Chinese influence in Australia were “irresponsible.”

The backlash was so severe there were reports in local media of Australian ministers being refused Chinese visas. Turnbull admitted in April the laws had created a “degree of tension” with Beijing.