Australia marks democratic trade pivot from China to India

Australia’s special envoy and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said a free trade agreement between his country and India would be a sign that the world is “democratically distancing itself from China.”

Abbott visited New Delhi last week as Australia’s special trade representative to India, as the Australian government prioritizes a bilateral trade agreement.

In an opinion piece likely to anger Beijing and published Monday in an Australian newspaper, Abbott said that “the answer to almost every question about China is India.”

“With the world’s other rising superpower becoming more belligerent almost every day, it is in everyone’s interest that India take its rightful place among the nations as soon as possible,” Abbott wrote.

“Since trade agreements are as much about politics as they are about economics, a swift agreement between India and Australia would be an important sign that the democratic world is distancing itself from China, as well as contributing to the long-term prosperity of both our countries,” Abbott added.

Abbott was prime minister when China and Australia signed the bilateral free trade agreement, which came into force in 2015 . A year earlier, he had also hosted a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping .

Since then, relations have soured over issues such as Australia’s ban on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei for major communications infrastructure projects, a ban on covert foreign interference in Australian politics and a call for an independent investigation into the causes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abbott accused Beijing of an “erratic boycott” of Australian exports, including coal, barley, wine and seafood, which showed that China is using trade as a “strategic weapon.”

“The fundamental problem is that China’s intimidating power is the result of the free world’s decision to invite a communist dictatorship into the global trade networks,” Abbott said.

“China has taken advantage of the goodwill and wishful thinking of the West to steal our technology and undermine our industry, becoming a much stronger competitor than the old Soviet Union ever was, because it now has a first-rate economy that is rapidly developing an equivalent military, and is willing to fight for Taiwan, a pluralistic democracy with a population of 25 million, which is living proof of the absence of the totalitarian gene in China’s DNA,” Abbott added.

The Chinese Embassy in Australia did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Negotiations between India and Australia on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement began in 2011 but were suspended in 2015.

India is particularly concerned about freer trade in Australian agricultural products. New Delhi’s demands for less restrictive visas for Indian workers are a major stumbling block for Australia.

Current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi modernized bilateral relations last year by signing a series of agreements that strengthened defense ties and required the two countries to expand trade.

Abbott visited India last week to “unlock the full potential of our economic relationship for the benefit of both the Indian and Australian people,” Australian High Commissioner for India Barry O’Farrell said in a statement.