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BEIJING — The official Chinese news media responded in a low-key, if apparently approving, fashion to a shift by the Australian government toward a more conciliatory strategic approach to China, judging by reactions over the weekend.
And judging by at least some online reactions from ordinary Chinese, suspicions linger that Australia may largely be doing the United States’ bidding in the region, despite the shift in Canberra.
The Australian government “no longer considers China a potential strategic threat, but considers China an important partner,” People’s Daily wrote from Canberra in a matter-of-fact article, citing the content of Australia’s new defense White Paper, which softens that country’s policy on China laid out four years ago.
“The white paper points out that ‘the government will not make China out to be an adversary. The goal of this policy is to encourage China’s peaceful rise and to prevent strategic competition in the region from slipping into conflict,’” the reporter Li Jingwei wrote in the newspaper, a Communist Party mouthpiece.
“In issues of development assistance in the Asia-Pacific region the white paper no longer criticizes China but recognizes China’s influence in the region,” Mr. Li wrote.
The white paper, presented in Canberra on Friday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defense Minister Stephen Smith, “stresses the importance of Australia’s relations with both China and the U.S., but says the U.S. will remain Australia’s most important ally,” the newspaper The Australian wrote in a story titled, “Defence white paper pivots over China threat.”
“We welcome China’s rise,” The Australian quoted Ms. Gillard as saying. “We seek to have a comprehensive and constructive engagement with China.”
“We also recognize that China’s rise and its subsequent military modernization is changing the strategic order of our region, and that the U.S.-China relationship is pivotal to our region of the world,” it quoted Ms. Gillard as saying. As China modernizes its military, Australia will “continue to call for transparency on that military modernization,” she said.
Australia’s geographic position in the Asia-Pacific region makes relations with China a pressing strategic issue for the country. Australia is economically increasingly reliant on China but also a longtime U.S. ally, complicating its relations with the Asian giant.
The new white paper recalibrates Australia’s response to China, James Brown of the Lowy Institute for International Policy wrote, comparing it with the previous paper, issued in 2009, which was tougher and annoyed China.
“The strategic assessment of the White Paper is much more sophisticated than that of the 2009 version. The rise of China is no longer a threat to wax histrionic about, but instead a nuanced issue on which there are many aspects and many possible outcomes,” Mr. Brown wrote on The Interpreter, the institute’s blog.
In 2011, Australia drew China’s ire by agreeing to station 2,500 U.S. marines in Darwin, a northern city, in a move widely seen as part of the U.S. “pivot” to focus more on a perceived, growing strategic threat from China.
China responded by accusing the United States of increasing military tensions in the region.
Some commentators have said that for Australia, balance is essential in negotiating the different geopolitical interests. As a headline in The Australian put it Saturday, “China relations require a delicate balancing act.”
The Australian cited Ross Terrill, an Australian and a China expert at Harvard: “He does not believe Australia is faced with a frightening choice between our great ally and our main trading partner,” the newspaper wrote. Instead, Australia could balance its interests.
“Radar still on Chinese, but it’s all friendly fire” was another headline, in The Sydney Morning Herald.
The English-language newspaper China Daily wrote over the weekend: “Australia defense paper accepts rise of China’s military.”
“The white paper’s welcoming attitude toward China’s peaceful rise demonstrates Australia’s emphasis on its ties with China,” the story said, citing Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
Stories with a similar content to the People’s Daily report ran in other official media, including military media, as well as on the Web site of the Chinese edition of the Scientific American.
That one linked to a comment site on Netease, a major portal. There, many comments, made apparently by ordinary Chinese, showed a range of responses.
“Reckon Australia has no plans to occupy China, and China also has no plans to rule Australia,” wrote a person identified as 221.11.*.*, from Xi’an city.
“The White Paper says one thing but in their hearts the real action is different,” wrote a Chengdu-based commenter identified as 112.193.*.*. Australia didn’t want to provoke China, the person said. “But they have already prepared well and that shows that Australia has grown clever!”
Another comment, which gained the most approval votes, was outright critical: “We’re nearly almost there in terms of tidying up American imperialism, we’ve more than enough to spare in terms of taking care of you, little Australia. Don’t jump around, behave well, understand,” wrote a person with the online handle Huanshun bu xiangxin.