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Tension Increases as China and Australia Grow Closer

August 24, 2009

The New York Times
August 21, 2009

BEIJING -- China’s diplomatic relationship with
Australia, so recently flourishing despite
occasional spats, this month has taken a severe
turn toward the governmental equivalent of thrown dinner plates.

Public exchanges between the nations, already
testy after China’s detention of four employees
of the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto,
grew sharper when Australia granted a visa to
Rebiya Kadeer, the American-based rights advocate
for China’s Muslim Uighur minority. Ms. Kadeer
was accused by Chinese officials of plotting
riots last month in China’s Xinjiang region.

The Australians recalled their Chinese ambassador
to the capital, Canberra, for talks on Wednesday,
after a week in which Beijing’s state-controlled
news media excoriated Australia’s “Sinophobic
politicians” and suggested that China’s billions
were better spent trading with friendlier nations.

The Chinese also canceled planned visits by Vice
Premier Li Keqiang, the heir apparent to Prime
Minister Wen Jiabao, and the vice foreign
minister, He Yafei, who was supposed to attend a
meeting of Asian nations. Columnists in the
Chinese press have also advocated limiting
Chinese tourism in Australia and curbing the
number of Chinese students studying there.

Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, countered
that the nations’ relationship is always "full of
challenges" and that their broader ties will
endure. “We share enormous common interests with
our friends in China, but we have continuous
differences," he was quoted as saying.

Hardly all Australians are persuaded. "I really
don’t think there’s anything that Australia can
do," J. Bruce Jacobs, a China specialist at
Monash University in Australia, said of the tiff.
“The Chinese seem to have various people they
like to pick on -- the French, because of the
Dalai Lama, and us, because of Kadeer. I think
all of this is driven by political imperatives within China.”

Mr. Jacobs was referring to China’s decision to
boycott a European Union summit meeting last
December because the union’s leader then,
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, planned to
meet the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of
Tibetans. The Chinese accuse the Dalai Lama of
plotting to split Tibet from China.

In the latest case, China sought this month to
keep Australia from granting Ms. Kadeer a visa to
attend the screening of a film about her life,
then tried to prevent her from making a speech to the National Press Club.

They were further examples of how Australians and
Chinese have chafed at their inexorably growing
ties. Trade between China and Australia has grown
sevenfold this decade, making China Australia’s
largest trading partner. Chinese investment in
Australia, while still small compared with its
investment in the United States, is mushrooming.

But Australians worry that Chinese investment is
directed at their vast natural resources, turning
them into a sort of open-pit mine for Chinese interests.

Mr. Rudd, who is fluent in Mandarin and was once
an Australian diplomat in Beijing, has advocated
deeper cooperation with China in global economic
forums and with President Obama.

Despite that, the relationship has foundered
lately on two issues that frequently divide
Beijing and the West: Chinese industrial policy and human rights.

Many Chinese expressed frustration this summer
after the collapse of a deal for a state-owned
company to acquire a 19 percent stake in Rio
Tinto, a crucial supplier of iron ore to China’s
steel mills. Although economic factors stopped
the deal, domestic suspicion of China’s
intentions toward an Australian corporate icon
was an undercurrent in the talks.

Relations deteriorated further in July after
China arrested four Rio Tinto employees involved
in iron-ore sales on espionage charges, accusing
them of stealing state secrets about ore pricing.
The Chinese later decided to pursue only lesser
charges, but outraged Australians -- including
Mr. Rudd -- warned that the prosecution would
threaten China’s commercial relations with the outside world.

In Beijing, one political analyst said Friday
that the rift was unlikely to cause lasting
damage to Chinese-Australian relations.

"The mainstream of the two countries’
relationship remains stable and friendly, even
though there are some kinds of problems,” said
the analyst, Su Hao, director of the Center for
Strategic and Conflict Management at China
Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. The
current spats, he said, are "technical" issues.
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