Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently made a major trip Down Under, in what Reuters sees as an attempt to fill a “Trump vacuum” left after the American pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership:
Australia and China found unprecedented common ground on trade during Li’s recent five-day visit Down Under, with a clear agenda of rejecting the “America First” protectionism touted by the new U.S. president.
“The cooperation between China and Australia showcases to the region and the world our determination to defend trade liberalization and advocate the benefits of free trade,” Turnbull told business leaders and politicians at a forum in Sydney, in comments closely echoed by Li.
Reuters‘ focus on “common ground” suggests that Australia is moving ever closer to China on trade, especially since Trump’s election. And there is truth to this: Trump’s withdrawal from TPP has given China a new opportunity to push its preferred trade agreements, which Australia seems amenable to. But Li’s trip also highlighted the ways that the two countries remain at odds, with Australia hesitant to embrace a China-led economic order as quickly or enthusiastically as Beijing might hope.
During Li’s trip, for instance, the two sides failed to reach agreement on the One Belt, One Road infrastructure program that Beijing has been pushing Canberra to sign on to. And while Li came to Australia bearing a major gift—a removal of export restrictions on chilled beef, which will open Chinese markets to a big Australian export—the Chinese side had little to show in exchange for the gesture. Moreover, China suffered a symbolic defeat shortly after Li left, when parliamentary opposition forced Malcolm Turnbull to abandon efforts to ratify an extradition treaty with China—a sign of the lingering distrust that many Australians still feel toward Beijing.
Despite China’s charm offensive, then, there are limits to Australia’s willingness to cozy up to China; for now, Canberra seems to be taking a “wait and see” approach before more fully embracing Chinese trade initiatives like OBOR. In the meantime, the Trump administration would be wise to make overtures to Australia to improve its own standing there. Between scrapping TPP, Trump’s combative phone call, and Obama’s failure to prevent China’s maritime gains, U.S. credibility has been eroding in Australia for some time now—and China is eager to pick up the pieces.