Coming just days after a high-profile visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the Australian parliament’s consideration this week of a long-delayed extradition treaty with Beijing was supposed to showcase the increasingly close ties between the countries.
Instead, a groundswell of opposition, based on bipartisan concerns over the integrity of the Chinese legal system, forced the government to abandon moves to ratify the deal, which has been awaiting approval since its conclusion in 2007.
The climbdown, which comes as a number of Australian residents are being detained in China in controversial circumstances, serves as a vivid reminder of the limits of a relationship that is based heavily on commerce and trade, but absent of common values such as the rule of law.
China is Australia’s biggest trade partner by far, with two-way trade in 2015 reaching US$119 billion, more than double that with the United States.
Forming a backdrop to the treaty debate was Beijing’s refusal to allow Feng Chongyi, a prominent critic of the Communist Party of China and professor at the University of Technology Sydney, to return to Australia, where he is a permanent resident, following a research trip to the country. Lawyers have said that Feng, who hasn’t been formally detained, is suspected of endangering state security and isn’t expected to be allowed to leave soon.
In another high-profile case creating unease here, 17 employees of a major Australian casino operator have been detained in China since their arrest in October on suspicion of various gambling-related offenses.
While center-right Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pitched the extradition deal as vital for developing cooperation in law enforcement, pointing to a recent US$76 million drug bust carried out with Chinese help, politicians both left and right pointed to longstanding issues with Beijing’s approach to justice, from its conviction rate of effectively 100% to the lack of an independent judiciary.
Unable to find the numbers in parliament, Turnbull on Tuesday took ratification of the deal off the table.
It’s an outcome at odds with the cordial atmosphere struck during Premier Li’s five-day visit that wrapped up in Sydney on Sunday. One of the most powerful figures in the Chinese leadership, Li was visiting to bolster Beijing’s standing as a regional leader amid a rising tide of protectionist sentiment and retrenchment in the United States and Europe.
“History cannot be turned back, just as the trend of the times cannot be reversed,” Li wrote in an oped published in the Australian newspaper at the start of his visit.
While Li and Turnbull talked of increased cooperation on trade, announcing a deal on greater market access for Australian beef, an agreement on extradition appears farther away now than it did before the premier’s visit, if not dead altogether.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has indicated she will seek to find a solution agreeable to the opposition Labor Party, which rejected the deal, and China, warning that the lack of a treaty made Australia a safe haven for Chinese criminals.
Wherever those efforts might lead, the tensions in the Australia-China relationship resulting from opposing value systems are likely to arise again in the future.