Written by Andrew O’Neil.

Since formalising their diplomatic relationship in the early 1970s, Australia and the People’s Republic of China have established a wide-ranging set of connections across various political, economic, and strategic domains.

In 2007, China overtook Japan as Australia’s largest trading partner, reflecting unprecedented levels of demand for iron ore and coal resources to power Chinese economic growth. In 2012, Australia and China signed a ‘Strategic Partnership’, which was highly vaunted by the then Gillard Labor Government as marking a new era in the bilateral relationship. While the Sino-Australian ‘Strategic Partnership’ did not constitute a security agreement, much less a formal alliance, for supporters of closer ties between Beijing and Canberra it represented a major step forward.

In parallel with these developments, China’s footprint has been broadening across Australia. After English, Mandarin is now the second most popular language spoken among Australians, China is overwhelmingly the largest provider of international students to Australian universities, and Confucius Institutes have an increasingly high profile as repositories of Chinese culture and historical tradition. In short, China’s influence is at an all-time high in Australia.

Yet, relations between Australia and China remain brittle. In recent years, just as closer connectivity between the two countries has accelerated, there have been several high profile diplomatic spats between Australia and China that reveal underlying friction in the relationship. Ironically, some of the sharpest of these spats occurred under the leadership of Australia’s first-ever Mandarin speaking Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who held office from 2007-2010 and again briefly in 2013 before he lost the Prime Ministership to his conservative opponent, Tony Abbott.

In 2008, Kevin Rudd provoked the anger of Beijing by publicly questioning China’s human rights performance in Xinjiang and Tibet. That he did so in Mandarin while in China accentuated the impact of his comments. This was followed by Beijing’s stern rebuke of Australia for including an assessment in its 2009 Defence White Paper that China’s lack of transparency on military modernization contained the potential to adversely effect regional security in Asia. In what seemed to be a case of payback, Chinese officials subsequently made life very difficult for Australians doing business in China, which included the arrest of a senior Rio Tinto executive on charges of spying. Revelations courtesy of Wikileaks that Rudd had privately suggested to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US may have to use force against China at some future point served to further sour Beijing’s view of the Rudd Government.

Despite the conclusion of the ‘Strategic Partnership’ with Beijing in 2012, the Gillard Government’s agreement in 2011 to rotate 2,000 US marine personnel through the northern port city of Darwin in the context of an even closer security alliance with Washington caused heartburn in Beijing. More recently, the Abbott Government’s public criticism in late 2013 of Beijing’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea has led to a sharp deterioration in diplomatic relations. Coming hot on the heels of Prime Minister Abbott’s heartfelt but pointed observation that ‘Australia has no better friend in the region than Japan’, the ADIZ episode exposed serious concerns among Australian policy makers about China’s behaviour as the region’s newest (and oldest) great power. While Australia was not the only country to condemn the ADIZ declaration publicly, the response from Beijing was swift and direct. Australia, according to Chinese officials, was ill-advised to ‘take sides’ in the East China Sea dispute given the country’s physical distance from the maritime zone and its dependence on Chinese markets for sustained economic growth.

Chinese officials seem to have been genuinely surprised that the Abbott Government chose to condemn the ADIZ. Privately, some Chinese officials were less exercised about Australia’s opposition to the ADIZ per se, and more preoccupied with what they regarded as the loss of face occasioned by the high profile carpeting of China’s Ambassador by Australian officials, and the public condemnation of the ADIZ by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

For students of international relations, these are surely strange phenomena. A middle power state, which is acutely dependent on trade with Asia’s powerhouse, has on several occasions openly challenged not only China’s foreign and defence policies, but also its domestic approach to human rights. This raises questions about the applicability of realist theories of international relations, which would predict gradual accommodation of China by Australia as the former becomes more powerful, and liberal theories, which predict that closer economic relations between states lead to smoother political interactions. What is going on here?

To provide at least a partial explanation, Australian motives need to be understood more clearly, something Chinese officials still seem to be grappling with. The US alliance is stronger than ever in attracting elite and grass roots support in Australia, but this does not explain Australia’s behaviour in challenging China. The safety net provided by the security alliance with the US may give Australian policy makers a sense of reassurance or ‘cover’ as they have criticised Chinese actions, but it does not explain why they did so in the first place.

In the case of Rudd’s remarks on China’s human rights performance, normative factors mattered. Rudd himself possess a deep and abiding admiration for Chinese civilization, but he remains highly critical of China’s authoritarian system of governance. His somewhat ham-fisted attempt to engage the Chinese as a zhengyou (‘true friend’) in a dialogue on human rights was predictably rejected out of hand by Beijing, something Rudd must have expected given his first-hand knowledge of China. This would at face value suggest that Rudd was more intent on sending a message than in trying to effect real change in Xinjiang and Tibet.

In criticizing China’s declaration of an ADIZ, Australian officials had their own reasons for going public. Australia has a major stake in preserving freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Oceans:  the country’s sea lines of communication traverse these regions. Beijing’s decision to unilaterally impose an ADIZ that encompassed a regional area subject to competing claims without prior consultation of other states in the region was seen as challenging freedom of navigation. If China could do this in the East China Sea, the South China Sea—where Beijing is also pressing its territorial claims—would also be fair game.

The ADIZ declaration may have also been perceived in Canberra as a broader test with long term implications: Does Australia say nothing publicly in response, which would run the risk of accommodating Chinese actions, or does it send a strong signal that these sorts of actions on the part of China are unacceptable? I suspect that Australian officials may have calculated that 2013 was the time to draw a line in the sand, not down the track when Australian objections to other Chinese unilateral actions would be harder to sustain due to earlier inaction over the East China Sea ADIZ declaration.

Andrew O’Neil is Director of the Griffith Asia Institute and Professor of International Relations at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.