Skip to main content

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during the second leaders' debate of the 2022 federal election campaign, in Sydney, Australia, on May 8.POOL/Reuters

As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison prepared to call an election earlier this year, polls suggested he would struggle to secure another term in office for his conservative coalition. Mr. Morrison has defied the odds in the past, however, and felt he could do so again through one issue: China.

While there is little policy space between the Liberal-National coalition and the opposition Labor Party when it comes to relations with Beijing, voters have tended to trust the conservatives more on national security, and Mr. Morrison and his advisers felt he could come out on top in a defence-focused “khaki election.”

“The government was trying incredibly hard to put the China threat at the front of the public’s attention in the lead-up to the election,” said James Laurenceson, head of the Sydney-based Australia-China Relations Institute. “Then when the Solomon Islands deal happened, that really flipped it for Labor.”

In late March, the draft text of a security pact between the Solomon Islands and China leaked online. It would allow Beijing to send police, military personnel and other armed forces “to assist in maintaining social order” in the Pacific country. The deal followed riots in the capital, Honiara, last year, sparked in part by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision to formally recognize China rather than Taiwan.

With relations between Beijing and Canberra at their worst point in decades, many feared the plan could see China establish a military base 1,700 kilometres off the Australian coast, drastically increasing its footprint in the South Pacific.

‘Teal wave’ in Australia sees voters backing climate-focused independent candidates

And while Mr. Sogavare sought to reassure Australia that this would not be the case, he did not back down despite intense and hurried lobbying by both Canberra and Washington, which dispatched a number of senior officials to the Solomons to try to scuttle the deal.

Beijing and Honiara officially signed the security pact about a week after Mr. Morrison called an election for May 21, the latest possible date. The Australian leader had the “khaki” campaign he wanted but was now thoroughly on the back foot, as Labor relished the opportunity to attack the coalition on the subject of China.

“Previously they didn’t want to be wedged on this issue,” said Mr. Laurenceson. “But I think they see it as payback on the government for their framing of Labor on China, with comments about the opposition being Manchurian candidates.”

In a fiery televised debate Sunday, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese said the deal was a “massive foreign policy failure” by the government.

“Some have commentated it has been the biggest failure since the Second World War. The government said they would have the Pacific Step-up,” he said, referring to a government program that promotes partnerships with Australia’s Pacific neighbours. “Instead, it is a Pacific stuff-up.”

“We know China is … trying to increase their influence in the region.”

Mr. Morrison, meanwhile, reiterated claims that Labor deputy leader Richard Marles “runs his speeches past the Chinese government,” something Mr. Albanese said was an “outrageous slur.”

In response to criticisms of the Solomon Islands deal, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last month that “some Australian politicians are used to seeking their own political gains by making denigrating remarks against China, and the international community has seen enough of this.”

After Mr. Morrison’s surprise victory in the 2019 election, relations with Beijing were relatively stable. That November he met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and promised that, despite “disagreements from time to time,” the two countries were “very committed” to ensuring their differences did not “overtake or overwhelm the rest of the relationship.”

Within months, however, as the pandemic took hold worldwide, Canberra infuriated Beijing by calling for an international, independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. In response, China halted imports of most Australian products, including coal, beef and wine.

Denouncing Beijing’s attempts as “economic coercion,” Mr. Morrison took an even more hawkish approach, forming a new alliance with Washington and London – AUKUS – aimed at countering China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. As part of the pact, Canberra also struck a deal to buy new nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S., something Beijing denounced as “damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts.” (The subs do not carry nuclear warheads.)

Mr. Morrison’s approach has been broadly popular with the electorate, while Chinese attempts to punish Australia through trade sanctions have been largely unsuccessful and have further hardened public opinion against Beijing.

Polling last year by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, found that a majority of Australians – 63 per cent – saw China more as a security threat than as an economic partner, a “conspicuous shift.” In 2020, only 41 per cent of people felt that way, while in 2018, 82 per cent of respondents felt China was a greater economic partner than a security threat.

The war in Ukraine, and Beijing’s refusal to condemn Moscow for the invasion, has only further hardened opinions of China.

Labor is not blind to this and has shifted its China policy accordingly under Mr. Albanese. Indeed, for all the mud-slinging by the two party leaders, there is little to divide them on this issue, according to an analysis by ACRI researcher Elena Collinson.

“The incumbent Coalition government and the opposition Labor Party broadly coalesce on national security and, in particular, their respective approaches towards” China, she wrote last month.

This includes taking a tough line on trade sanctions, increasing defence spending and committing to both AUKUS and the Quad, an alliance with the U.S., Japan and India that some have described as “Asian NATO.” What debate does exist, Ms. Collinson wrote, is largely being driven by figures inside both parties “who are pushing for an even tougher line towards Beijing.”

Despite this, most analysts expect a Labor government to try to repair relations with China, though getting them back to pre-2019 levels may now be impossible.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, shadow foreign secretary Penny Wong said Labor would not “play domestic politics with the China relationship.” She added, however, that the ball will largely be in Beijing’s court.

“We won’t be abandoning the positions that cause China concern – Australia’s position on the South China Sea, Australia’s right to determine who builds its 5G network,” Ms. Wong said. “We’re not going to abandon our position on the UN convention on the law of the sea or human rights or foreign interference.”

Of Malaysian-Chinese origin herself, Ms. Wong criticized the government’s often racially charged rhetoric, saying she’d never seen a prime minister “use terms like Manchurian candidate, or Beijing’s preferred candidate, ever.”

As in Canada, there are fears that increasing hostility toward China could blow back against Australians with ties to that country. Speaking at a recent event, Chinese Australian Forum president Simon Chan said Chinese Australians have become “collateral damage” in the deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Canberra.

At the same event, Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg said the debate was often “unsophisticated” and thanked the Chinese community for its “steadfastness” in “putting up with racism at times.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.