Australian elections: Xi Jinping has high hopes for political campaign

The Chinese leader, while not a member of any modern democracy, has become a prominent participant in a campaign dogged by accusations of foreign interference and partly fighting over national security issues.

Xi’s face can be seen not only on billboards, but also in press conferences, interviews and election debates between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who leads the Liberal National Coalition, and Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, who wants to replace him. .

“Xi has changed the character of the Chinese Communist Party… It has become more progressive. She became more aggressive. tough government stance.

Even before the federal election campaign began, there were accusations that China wanted Labor to win. In the week leading up to the May 21 vote, opinion polls, though notoriously unreliable, suggest that this could indeed happen, with a Labor government coming to power for the first time since 2013.

How this could change Australia’s relationship with China was a common question ahead of the vote. The coalition suggested that Labor would be soft on China, a serious accusation from a government whose defense minister recently warned that to keep the peace, Australia must “prepare for war.”

On paper, there seems to be little difference in foreign policy between the two major parties. Labor says it is committed to the AUKUS security pact, a deal Morrison made with the United States and Britain to the detriment of Australia’s relationship with France. And both support the Quad, a loose four-way alliance between Australia, the US, India and Japan, due to meet in Tokyo next week after the election.

It’s not yet clear who will be attending on Australia’s behalf, but analysts say the man faces serious challenges when it comes to China, especially after a fierce election campaign that has pushed Xi and his intentions to the top.

Relationship clue

China has always been poised to play a role in Australian elections as a regional heavyweight with significant trade ties to a small country on which it depends for iron ore and coal, if not other sanctioned exports.

Xi’s rise to power in China clearly coincides with the coalition’s last tenure in government – both took office in 2013, and relations have deteriorated since then, at the fastest rate in six years.

Some of the alarm dates back to 2016, when ties developed between a senior Labor senator and a wealthy Chinese businessman, prompting more scrutiny of alleged foreign political interference. Under then-Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, laws were passed to prevent foreigners from donating to political campaigns in Australia, among other measures, and Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE were banned from building a 5G network in Australia. After the 5G ban, China’s foreign affairs representative urged the country to “give up (its) ideological prejudices.”

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Relations further deteriorated in 2020 when the Australian government, then led by Morrison, called for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. China responded with sanctions against Australian exports, including beef, barley, wine and lobster.

Charles Edel, Australia’s first chairman and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said China’s goal was to make Australia more compliant, but that didn’t work.

“It backfired,” he said. “This has hardened public attitudes in Australia and pushed Canberra to lead the charge against China’s coercive actions.”

According to 2021 Lowy Institute China Survey of Australians, the overwhelming majority had a negative attitude towards the Chinese system of government and Chinese military activities in the region, although they had a positive attitude towards the Chinese people and Chinese culture. China’s tacit support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine also hardened attitudes, with the Australian government rushing to supply tanks, coal and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

While the sanctions have undoubtedly hurt Australian businesses, the loss of the Chinese market has forced some to diversify and find new markets. Meanwhile, China continues to buy Australian iron ore at near-record prices. So in this regard, Australia has not lost.

In fact, Edel says Australia’s tough response to Beijing’s coercion has created another model for other countries in the region to follow.

“Australia has responded to the deteriorating strategic environment by investing in its own capabilities, expanding its cooperation with the United States and seeking to strengthen its ties with other countries in the region,” he said. “Pursuing an active foreign policy while investing in one’s own sustainability offers a model for other states under pressure from revisionist powers.”

Drop chances

But there is no consensus on the success of the Morrison government’s approach to China. During the campaign, despite the coalition touting its superior experience in international affairs, Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, a Pacific island nation that also has a security agreement with Canberra.

All of a sudden, the specter of a Chinese military base in a country just 2,000 kilometers (1,600 miles) off the coast of Australia has been the subject of an election campaign despite the Solomon Islands and Beijing denying they have any such plans. The issue was so divisive that in the first few weeks of the campaign, China and the Solomon Islands were mentioned in the Australian media more than climate change, according to media monitors Isentia.

Labor called the deal a “massive foreign policy failure” that came despite warnings that Honiara was moving closer to China. In the midst of an election campaign, it is advantageous for Labor to point out the shortcomings of the coalition’s foreign policy – in fact, the timing of the deal was so opportune for Labor that Home Secretary Karen Andrews suggested, without any evidence, that it was deliberately timed for Beijing to fall just weeks before the vote. – a statement that the Labor Party called “reckless”.

Early voting began in the Australian federal election on the eve of official voting day on 21 May.
Both sides say that “China has changed.” In recent years, Beijing has stepped up the militarization of the South China Sea, committed alleged human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, and restricted freedoms in Hong Kong, where police recently arrested 90-year-old cardinal in accordance with national security laws.

But James Lawrenson, director of the Australian-Chinese Relations Institute, said the Morrison government should take some responsibility for the deteriorating relationship.

“The rhetoric, posturing and lack of diplomacy actually played quite a role in how we got there,” he said.

“We didn’t just defend our sovereignty. We took risks with every other country in the region to be, I would say, quite provocative,” he said, citing Defense Secretary Peter Dutton’s comment that Australia should “prepare for war” as an example.

Lawrenson sees no improvement in relations with Beijing under a re-elected Morrison government. “I think they are disillusioned with the Morrison government,” he said, but added that a Labor victory would not necessarily mean a reset either.

“No one is talking about going back to how the world was five years ago. But to make our relationship less hostile, I think it’s within our power. And I think Labor has options where they can make some subtle changes to their diplomacy. and that will make this option realistic.”

In an article published in Australian media last week, Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian said that Canberra should not view the “rise of China” as a threat.

“Cooperation between China and the South Pacific island countries contributes to the well-being of the people on both sides, regional prosperity and stability, and will in no way threaten the security of Australia,” he wrote.

Where from here

There are no rules in Australian law regarding the veracity of political ads, so using Xi’s image on posters claiming he supports candidates of various political persuasions is entirely legal.

Xi’s face appears not only on advertisements claiming to support Labor, but also on billboards claiming to support the Liberal candidate, as well as at least one independent candidate. The appeal to Xi seems to be the ultimate political insult.

A poster claiming that Chinese President Xi Jinping supports the Liberal candidate.

Andrew Hughes, marketing expert at the Australian National University, says Australia is known as the “Wild West” when it comes to political ads, but the use of China in this campaign was notable nonetheless.

“I think it’s more visible in this election than ever, when I’ve seen the use of a foreign government in election campaigns outside of wartime,” Hughes said.

Hughes said the coalition used China to create a link in people’s minds that “Work equals fear,” although he questioned the strategy’s effectiveness in front of an audience that only looked at the problems from the corner of its eye.

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“Most people don’t have the level of involvement in politics to make this messaging effective. So (the coalition) is probably a little more negative and a little tougher.”

CSIS’s Edel said that no matter who wins, Australia is more likely to improve its relationship if it stands its ground, which is possible with any leadership.

“While there may be differences in tone and approach, both sides now support an increase in Australia’s defense budget, closer cooperation with the United States and other like-minded nations, opposition to China’s advance into the Pacific, a call for Beijing’s flagrant human rights abuses, and taking action to protect democracy in Australia,” he said.

However, Lawrenson said a calmer approach and the realization that Australia cannot dictate China’s relationship in the Pacific will go a long way in putting the relationship on a firmer footing.

“There certainly is a track record of overreaction and panic. And how does that actually help you respond?” he said. “Having a strategy to negate the expansion of Beijing’s relations in the region is simply ridiculous. It’s unrealistic. So yes, let’s take this seriously, let’s respond with a clear strategy. But let’s make sure our estimates and our strategy are at least grounded in reality.”

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