The Gillard Government and Australia-China Relations

Julia Gillard was prime minister of Australia from June 2010 to June 2013, replacing Kevin Rudd [topic link page]. Prior to becoming leader, Gillard worked almost solely on domestic policy, eschewing involvement in Australian foreign policy and visiting China only once during her time in parliament.

Several analysts hoped that Gillard would bring a steady and uncontroversial approach to the China relationship following the more tumultuous Rudd years. From the outset, Gillard declared Australia ‘can have our strong, long-standing friendship and alliance with the United States, based as it is on shared values, as well as have a positive and constructive engagement with China.’

Gillard made her maiden official visit to China in May 2011, the first prime ministerial stopover since Kevin Rudd delivered his controversial zhengyou [add topic link] address at Peking University in April 2008. She held talks on trade and investment and raised human rights issues with then Chinese president Hu Jintao and then premier Wen Jiabao, and spoke at a business forum.

In September 2011, Gillard announced her signature Australia in the Asian Century White Paper [topic link page], a comprehensive report on how Australia should best position itself to respond to a rising Asia, and particularly China. The report was launched in October 2012.

Controversy first struck in November 2011 when US President Barack Obama visited Australia to launch his ‘Pivot to Asia’ [topic page link] in a speech to the Australian parliament, and announced the stationing of US marines in Darwin with Gillard at his side. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) criticised the move as inappropriate and ‘not … in the interest of countries within this region’. Chinese state media warned that Australia ‘cannot play China for a fool’ and could now be ‘caught in the crossfire’ of a potential China–US conflict.

Tensions grew further when it was reported in early 2012 that the Gillard government had banned Huawei [topic page link] from participating in construction of the National Broadband Network on national security grounds.

But Gillard was successful in upgrading diplomatic relations with China. In March 2012, she wrote to Hu Jintao proposing a regular high-level dialogue, sending Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Dennis Richardson to Beijing in August to follow up. In April 2013, Gillard made a state visit to China (accompanied by a heavyweight delegation of political and business leaders) and met with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Following these meetings, Gillard announced that Australia and China had agreed to upgrade their bilateral diplomatic architecture to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’ 战略伙伴关系.

This ‘strategic partnership’ secured annual meetings between the Australian prime minister and Chinese premier, Australian treasurer and trade minister and the chairman of the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, and between the Australian and Chinese foreign ministers. This put Australia on the same diplomatic level with China as Russia, Germany, the UK and the EU, and just one level below the US. This achievement garnered near-universal praise for Gillard in Australian media and policy circles (Hugh White [topic page link] being a notable exception).

The Defence White Paper released by the Gillard government soon after, in May 2013, was explicit that Australia encouraged ‘China’s peaceful rise’, discernibly softening Australian rhetoric when compared to the Rudd government’s 2009 White Paper [topic link page] that identified Chinese military expansion as a ‘cause for concern’.

The only sustained criticism of China policy during Gillard’s tenure was Australia’s continued inability to advance the stalled China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (CHAFTA) negotiations [topic page link].


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