Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Australia. There he announced plans for joint mine, rail and port projects and removed the last restrictions on imports of Australian beef to China, an industry already worth $300 million annually to local ranchers. “It is time for China and Australia to enter into an era of free trade across the board, which means that we need to have free trade between our two countries in wider areas,” Li told reporters in the Australian capital, Canberra.
Li’s visit was the latest salvo in a concerted Chinese charm offensive in Australia, one that has taken on new impetus since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. In one of his first acts, Trump nixed U.S. involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade bloc, which the Australian government had lauded as bringing “tremendous” benefits for local exporters. When Trump spoke with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Jan. 28, the U.S. President said it was “the worst call by far” he’d made. The two leaders clashed over an agreement forged by the Obama Administration to accept 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center, which Trump deemed “the worst deal ever.”
The spat threatened to derail a strategic alliance that stretches back decades — including American-led wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — and push Canberra closer to Beijing. Already, China is Australia’s largest trading partner — two-way trade was $115 billion in 2014. Chinese students flock en masse to Australian universities, while Chinese consumers supped $400 million of Australian wine last year.
Still, fears of an Australian defection to China’s corner are misplaced for now, as illustrated by an incident that unfolded 4,600 miles away just hours after Li addressed reporters in Canberra. Feng Chongyi, a China-studies academic at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), was halted at Guangzhou International Airport attempting to board a flight back to Australia. He remains in Guangzhou in a “special situation,” his lawyer Liu Hao tells TIME. No reason for the travel ban has been given.
Feng, who was born in China, is an Australian permanent resident though not a citizen, and reportedly entered China on a Chinese passport. Yet he was far from a dissident: he worked for UTS’s Australia-China Relations Institute, headed by former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, which has a reputation for unashamedly propagating a positive spin on the Australia-China relationship. Critics have even branded it the local “propaganda arm” of the Chinese Communist Party.
Feng’s quasi detention stirred enough public alarm to prompt the shelving on Tuesday of a joint extradition treaty that had been on the books for 10 years and was finally due to be ratified by the Australian parliament. Most embarrassingly, the nixing came just hours after Li departed following his five-day visit. The incident stood to demonstrate that however closely entwined the two nations become economically, China’s poor human-rights record and repressive legal system will bridle how deep any alliance could ever be.
“Since the Trump election, China has gone on a bit of a charm offensive with Australia,” says Professor Nick Bisley, an Asia expert at Australia’s La Trobe University. “But it’s far too early days to mark Australia out as a country that’s turning or even ripe for the turning.”
Australia’s wariness is partly prompted by China’s ham-fisted attempts of gaining domestic political leverage. In 2013, Chinese hackers stole the blueprints for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO) new $480 million headquarters. The building remained empty until very recently. In October, Labor Party Senator Sam Dastyari was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet after it emerged that a Chinese government-linked company had paid a private travel bill. The 33-year-old is known for being sympathetic to Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The Dastyari case prompted Australian intelligence services to map the flow of Chinese money and businessmen into Australia, augmenting demands for an end to foreign donations to political parties. There are also calls to ban Confucius Institutes from Australian universities. The Chinese government-funded cultural-promotion bodies have been accused of espionage and brazenly advancing Beijing’s political agenda.
“The China soft-power thing is taken very seriously by Australian security agencies,” says Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “And the realists in defense are very concerned about the South China Sea.”
The ideological gulf is good news for Washington. Speaking in Singapore earlier this month, Australian Minister Julie Bishop said that the “United States must play an even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific … While nondemocracies such as China can thrive when participating in the present system an essential pillar of our preferred order is democratic community.” (Those comments earned Bishop a fierce rebuke from China’s state media.)
Still, deep economic ties between Australia and the U.S aggrandize the bedrock of shared values. Although China ranks top in Australia for trade, American investment dwarfs all competitors, standing at $660 billion in 2015. Unease at China’s underhand tactics is partly responsible. In April, the Australian government blocked the $283 million sale of the Kidman beef ranch — the world’s largest, roughly the size of Ireland — to Chinese investors as it was deemed “contrary to the national interest.” The same reason was given for preventing a Chinese firm from buying a controlling stake in Australia’s largest electricity network in August.
“It’s hard to overstate how strong and deeply rooted the [U.S.-Australia] relationship is on both sides of the Pacific,” says Bisley. With China, he adds, “it’s a high-value but not a deep relationship.”