Webinar on “Coercion and Resistance: How Australia Awoke from its China Dream”

In this webinar, Professor Rory Medcalf talked about the deterioration in Australia-China relations.


Friday, 7 May 2021 — China’s imposition of punitive trade measures on the Australian economy and Australia’s vocal criticisms of China’s international behaviour have plunged bilateral ties to its lowest ebb. In a webinar entitled “Coercion and Resistance: How Australia Awoke from its China Dream” at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Professor Rory Medcalf discussed the history, present state and future of Sino-Australian relations. Prof Medcalf is the Head of the National Security College (NSC) at the Australian National University, with extensive experience in diplomacy, intelligence analysis, think tanks, academia and journalism. 

Professor Rory Medcalf
Prof Rory Medcalf explained that the deterioration in Sino-Australian relations long predated Australia’s demand for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Ms Hoang Thi Ha moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof Medcalf contextualised Australia’s “unusual” international posture in terms of its “constant quest” to foster a clear regional identity and find its place in the world. In Australia’s efforts to cultivate its identity as an Asian country, engagement with China was an important aspect. While Australia initially viewed China as a risk and threat during the Cold War, the 1970s marked a shift as the country began to understand the enormous potential of a good relationship with China. As China was also changing with its opening-up and pursuit of reforms, there was optimism about the convergence of interests between the two countries, and the belief that Australia’s liberal democratic values could go hand in hand with a closer economic relationship with China. Prof Medcalf described how this created the Australian version of the “China Dream”, characterised by a sense of complacency and Australia’s “dream-like state in international affairs” for most of the 1990s and early 2000s.

The deterioration in Sino-Australian relations, Prof Medcalf explained, long predated Australia’s demand for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Australia’s “China Dream” was interrupted in 2016 as the country began to review its national security interests and protect itself from external risks, especially in critical national infrastructure and emerging technology. Although media coverage may suggest otherwise, Prof Medcalf clarified that this review was country-agnostic and not specifically directed at China.

The review was however prompted by a “moment of overreach” in 2016, which had the effect of unravelling China’s influence and interference in Australian society. The then-Senator Sam Dastyari of the opposition Australian Labor Party was exposed for using the Chinese government’s talking points when discussing the South China Sea. The incident was compounded by the fact that he was receiving donations from a rich Chinese patron. Along with concerns about China’s increasingly aggressive international behaviour, the security of the region including the South China Sea, and worries about cyber-espionage, this prompted a “reality check” about the balance of risks and opportunities in Australia’s relationship with China. This culminated in Australia’s decision to ban “non-trusted vendors” – such as China’s ZTE and Huawei – from developing the country’s 5G network. China’s reactions to these decisions include the use of economic coercion and propaganda to show its mounting displeasure. Prof Medcalf revealed that the Chinese response has alienated a large part of Australian society and served to galvanise popular opinion about the need to adopt a firm stance against China to protect Australia’s national interests. 

According to Prof Medcalf, China has been trying to isolate Australia by implying that the latter stood alone in its criticisms of China, but the examples of the United States, Europe and even Singapore drawing their “own lines of resistance against China” suggest otherwise. Prof Medcalf also argued that China is running out of policy levers that it can use to exert further pressure on Australia. For instance, China’s recent suspension of the high-level economic dialogue with Australia was merely formal as talks had been already inactive for some time. Furthermore, “blind punishment” of Australia could set a bad precedent for China, as Prof Medcalf described such punitive measures as “one-shot weapons” that will irrevocably damage trust and ultimately force countries to diversify their trade relations and supply chains to reduce reliance on China. As such, he surmised that strategic tensions between Australia and China are likely to persist. 

Following his presentation, Prof Medcalf engaged the audience of 77 attendees from Singapore and abroad in a Q&A session that covered issues such as how the perceived inefficacy of the ASEAN Way has catalysed the revitalisation of the Quad and other minilateral frameworks that do not comprise Southeast Asian states, which Southeast Asian states are best positioned to offer support to Australia, how these states should draw upon “Australia’s principle, persistence and pragmatism” in handling their relations with China, the challenge of building a more broad-based consensus both within Australia’s security establishment and with its closest neighbour New Zealand in resisting China’s overbearing behaviour, and Australia’s position on Taiwan, among others.

Almost 80 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)