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Australians ride anti-China wave: Analysts

A wave of anti-China feeling in Australia over Beijing’s interest in the resources sector reflects unease about the Asian giant’s increasing power amid the global financial crisis, analysts said.

world Updated: Apr 02, 2009 14:16 IST

A wave of anti-China feeling in Australia over Beijing’s interest in the resources sector reflects unease about the Asian giant’s increasing power amid the global financial crisis, analysts said.Chinese state-owned companies have moved to snap up debt-laden Australian resources firms in recent months, including a bid from Chinalco to invest $19.5 billion in mining giant Rio Tinto.But the spending spree has been accompanied by allegations that China enjoys too much influence over the government in Canberra and claims that Australia is “selling the farm” to the highest bidder.

Foreign policy analyst John Lee said much of the commentary reflected “fear, paranoia and xenophobia,” with the opposition accusing the Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of acting as a “roving ambassador” for Beijing.Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s failure to declare two trips to China paid for by a Beijing-born businesswoman more than four years ago has ballooned into a “spy” scandal, even though the woman in question is an Australian citizen.And even an April Fool’s Day prank story suggesting a Chinese firm was seeking rights to rename the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground prompted a torrent of online complaints about “selling out” national icons to Asia.

It is a far cry from attitudes to China just six months ago, when Australia was still riding a mining boom driven by Beijing’s need for raw materials to fuel its industrial expansion.Lee said the fact that China remained relatively strong during the global downturn while recession was looming in Australia had been a difficult adjustment, particularly since Beijing started wielding its purchasing power.

“With the global financial crisis, there’s clearly a shift of power closer to China and there’s a bit more of a fear about what this actually means for our future,” he said.“Before the global financial crisis China was seen as opportunity, now it’s both opportunity and threat,” he added.University of Queensland international security specialist Professor Andrew Philips said Australians had long expressed racial anxiety about China from anti-Chinese riots in the goldfields in the 1800s to the rise of right-winger Pauline Hanson in the 1990s.

“There’s still a degree of ambivalence there which I think is frequently mistaken for xenophobia,” Phillips said."But I think there is a genuine concern about how close we should be aligning with what is still essentially an authoritarian state.” He said the government needed to strike a delicate balance in promoting Australia’s long-term interests through greater engagement with China while assuring the public the country was not being exploited by Beijing.

The recent revelation that Rudd tried to keep a meeting with China’s propaganda chief secret had done nothing to settle Australians’ jitters that bureaucrats from Beijing were peddling influence in Canberra, Phillips said.“I think where the concern comes in is the perception that this attempt to build that relationship is somehow occurring in a secretive and non-transparent fashion,” he said.

Zhang Junsai, China’s ambassador to Australia, sought to ease concerns this week and expressed concerns about the “emotive language” currently driving the debate.“Chinese companies in Australia, state-owned or private, do not seek to control Australia’s energy or mineral resources,” he said."Like companies from other countries, they seek a long-term sound and reliable supply of energy and resources.”“To what extent can you expect them to behave like other business partners would?” he asked.“The fact that they wish to have a direct influence on commercial activities as part of their national arrangement is something that most people would find somewhat perilous. International trade is not built on that basis.”

Regardless, Australia remains reluctant to shut the door on the flow of investment from Beijing, giving the green light this week to Hunan Valin Iron and Steel to increase its stake in Fortescue Metals Group to 17.55 percent.It is also considering a revised takeover proposal from Minmetals for OZ Minerals after rejecting the initial bid on national security grounds because one of its mines in South Australia was close to a rocket testing facility.The Rio Tinto deal -- China’s largest-ever foreign investment -- is also under government review.