The mood in Canberra towards the People’s Republic of China is souring. No single event has spurred this downward spiral; rather, a string of incidents and actions by the PRC have impelled many in Canberra to re-examine the Beijing government’s pledge to rise peacefully. These include continuous media reports about the PRC government’s efforts to meddle in Australian society, the PRC’s insistence that it has every right to fortify artificial land features in the South China Sea, Beijing’s retaliation against select South Korean industries to display its displeasure over Seoul’s decision to deploy a US missile defence system, and the hardine speech by PRC President Xi Jinping on the twentieth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. These have all chipped away at the image of a rising power that is genuinely committed to mutual respect among nations.
Of course, at the official level the relationship is fine. The comprehensive strategic partnership established in 2012 between the two countries is alive and well. The smiles and buoyant mood during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia in March 2017 attest to this. But just below the surface there are numerous indications of a deteriorating relationship and increasing disagreement among Australian policymakers about the right way to engage with China. Protecting Australia’s interests with effective responses to the PRC’s actions – be they in the South and East China Seas or within Australian society – has never been more demanding.