Yearender: Ups and downs signal more nuanced Sino-Australian ties
        | 2013-12-24 11:57:09 | Editor: Yang Lina

CANBERRA, Dec. 24 (Xinhua) -- The year 2013 saw both highs and lows in relations between China and Australia.

More than six months after then Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited China and signed documents with Chinese leaders to upgrade bilateral relations to a Strategic Partnership, the ties saw twists after Australia made uncharacterically strong response to China's announcement of the creation of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea late last month.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed concern over China's establishment of ADIZ in a statement, questioning the timing and the manner of this announcement, and she even called in the Chinese ambassador for an explanation.

China expressed strong dissatisfaction with Canberra's move. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called the statement " irresponsible" and "mistaken."

China has urged Australia to observe its promise of not taking sides on disputes of territorial sovereignty. Bishop denied having been doing so.

In the wake of Bishop's disputed response to China's ADIZ announcement, opposition leader Bill Shorten said that the government has had a "rocky start" in foreign affairs, and called on the government to handle things competently.

"The national interest is important," he told reporters in Canberra, though he refrained from commenting whether the foreign minister had overstepped the mark.

Some local analysts do believe the relationship is going to be harder to manage in the future.

"It was always going to be difficult to reconcile Australia's close military relationship with our interests in China," said Nick Bisley, the executive director of La Trobe Asia.

"And since the election of the (Tony) Abbott government, things have become more challenging. Australia has joined the U.S. and Japan in taking what is seen by China as a hard line response to Beijing's creation of new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea."

Professor Jingdong Yuan, a security expert from the University of Sydney, said China does not understand why Australia is taking this stance, as it does not have a direct involvement in the issue.

He said he believes Australia's decision to call in the Chinese ambassador was a step too far and that by taking this position Australia can no long be seen as impartial.

The past couple of months have seen the delicate balancing act the Abbott government will have to walk in its regional diplomacy.

Back in October, Bishop referred to Japan as Canberra's "best friend" in Asia and announced Australia's support for Japan's military modernization during her first trip to Tokyo.

"The ADIZ response is part of a deliberate effort to make clear where Australia stands in relation to Asia's international order," Bisley said.

But Bisley also holds that the underlying foundations of the Sino-Australian relations remain robust.

"If Australia was concerned that the relationship was fragile then they would not have responded to the ADIZ in this way," he said.

In a Canberra speech in early November, Bishop talked of the need to invigorate the Australia-Japan relationship, but emphasized that would not take anything from the relationship with China.

Bishop has downplayed Australia's dispute with China over this issue as a bump in the road in the relationship.

Calling it an ongoing issue which she expects to discuss further during her visit to Beijing, Bishop said that she did not believe the disagreement would impact on the Abbott government's hopes to secure a free trade agreement with China next year.

"There are a whole range of areas where we cooperate with China, the important thing is for us to discuss these things in a civilized way... I'm confident the Australia and China partnership will continue to grow."

"China is our major trading partner, we have a very deep and long-standing engagement with China but it is appropriate that each side be able to raise concerns with each other and do it in a way that hopefully will receive appropriate consideration," she told reporters in Canberra before her visit to China.

Bishop went to Beijing in early December for an official visit, during which she co-chaired the first China-Australia diplomatic and strategic dialogue with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

The dialogue was seen as a significant step forward for the bilateral relationship that included "working-level" discussions between the Australian Defense Department and the People's Liberation Army on regional security issues.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the most important experience accumulated in the past decades on the Sino-Australia ties is to respect and accommodate each other's core interests and major concerns and nurture mutual trust.

"This is the basis of bilateral strategic partnership, and the prerequisite of cooperation in various sectors," he said, adding that China hopes the Australian side can properly handle sensitive issues from a strategic and long-term perspective.

China is now Australia's largest trading partner with trade worth about 130 billion U.S. dollars a year.

China is also the largest importer of Australian goods and Australia's largest source of overseas students and second largest source of tourists and skilled migrants.

Bishop said the government is looking forward to a free trade agreement with China after nine years of negotiations.

"We are very keen to enhance our trade relationship with China. It's already a very important trading relationship and we hope that given the free trade negotiation having been on foot since 2005, that we will conclude a high quality free trade agreement within 12 months because it will be in the national interest of China and Australia to liberalize trade, to ensure that we can enhance an existing market and should be for the mutual benefit of both countries," Bishop told Xinhua in an interview prior to her China trip.

This month, the Australian government removed certain foreign investment conditions placed on several Chinese companies, namely the State Grid Corporation of China and Yanzhou Coal Mining Company, a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is to visit China next year.

As China will be hosting APEC and Australia hosting G20 in 2014, Bishop said the two countries work closely together at multilateral forums.

"Between those two forums we hope to be able to coordinate our efforts and Australia and China can work closely together on the economic agenda and increase trade and investment in the region," she said.

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