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Bill Shorten Wants Australia to Embrace China. But at What Cost?

SYDNEY, Australia — In a recent online discussion, Bill Shorten, the front-runner in the race to be Australia’s next prime minister, left little doubt about where he stood on the politically delicate issue of relations with China — and where the world’s other superpower fit into his calculus.

“If I’m P.M., I welcome the rise of China in the world,” he said in a poston the Chinese social media platform WeChat that was aimed at Australia’s 1.2 million voters of Chinese descent. Mr. Shorten, the leader of the center-left Labor Party, added that he saw China not as a “strategic threat,” but as a “strategic opportunity.”

Those words put him directly at odds with the Trump administration, which has sounded alarms about China’s global ambitions and tactics. But Mr. Shorten, while acknowledging that Australia would always be an ally of the United States, declared that it was time for his nation “to stand on its own feet and think for itself.”

If Mr. Shorten’s party prevails in Saturday’s election, his embrace of China would represent a significant break from the current conservative Australian government, which has taken a harder line toward Beijing’s growing influence in the country and whose leader, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is an avowed admirer of President Trump. It could also signify a crack in the united front that the Trump administration is trying to build to check China’s ascent.

For Mr. Shorten, the calculation may be largely about economics. The Labor leader, whose campaign has promised significant spending to bolster public health programs, education and wages, is hoping that improved relations with China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, will keep the economy growing.

Mr. Morrison, whose conservative coalition has narrowed the gap with Mr. Shorten’s Labor Party in polls but is still trailing, has focused his election message on the notion that Labor’s spending plans would send the economy into a recession. That is a frightening prospect to Australians who have known only economic expansion for a generation.

But critics fear that any softening toward China could have much broader ramifications, putting pressure on Australia, for instance, to roll back its clampdown on foreign interference or to keep silent on Chinese human rights abuses.

Mr. Morrison’s warier stance on China was crystallized by remarks he made on Monday when asked about the protracted trade war between Washington and Beijing. He said that he would not pick sides, saying, “You stand by your friends, and you stand by your customers as well.”