From the time then-prime minister Gough Whitlam set foot in China during the early 1970s to establish diplomatic relations, Australia’s ties with the country have been largely based on mutual self-interest.
In Australia, Beijing found an ideal partner able to provide it with the raw materials to power its transition from a poverty-stricken, insular communist state into a global powerhouse of authoritarian capitalism. Meanwhile, Australia’s mining boom filled government coffers and, along with the proceeds from a steady stream of Chinese tourists and students, helped buttress decades of continuous economic growth.
There was also a more principled motive. Australia, along with many Western nations, hoped that welcoming China into the club of global trade and diplomatic institutions would encourage it to liberalise its economy, and possibly even its political system. As history has shown, while China was happy to trade with the world, its political leaders had no intention of loosening their grip on power.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been a case in point, entrenching his authority at home and expanding Beijing’s influence globally. But growing influence has been matched by an increasing sensitivity to criticism and a willingness to strike out when China perceives its interests are threatened.