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The challenges keep coming despite Australia-China détente

On 5th November, Anthony Albanese, the Australian Prime Minister, stood grinning amidst the bustle of a Shanghai trade fair holding aloft an Aussie lobster formerly denied from the tables of wealthy Chinese. He declared himself ‘pro-panda’ in the face of calls for pandas at Adelaide Zoo to be returned to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who had flashed a rare smile at his meeting with Albanese in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing the following day, announced that the countries ‘have no historical grievances or fundamental conflicts of interest’, and have now ‘embarked on the right path’ which is naturally aligned with ‘the correct direction’ in the global context of ‘shared destiny’. Li Qiang, the Chinese Premier, iced the cake, describing his Australian counterpart as both an ‘old friend’, and ‘a very handsome boy’.

What a contrast to some three years earlier. For as the Covid-19 pandemic started ravaging the world, Australia had suffered a relentless tide of antipathy from the PRC, including the seizing of two Australian citizens, the banning or imposing of massive tariffs on a wide range of Australian imports – including wine, barley, coal, beef, cotton, wood, nickel and copper concentrates, as well as lobsters – and the refusal to communicate with Australian government ministers. The Chinese embassy also presented a list of 14 Australian grievances and sins, which it claimed were ‘poisoning relations’.

When the Labor Party won the May 2022 federal election, replacing a conservative coalition, Beijing changed its approach. A common PRC trope since then has claimed Australians chose to vote ‘for China’ in electing Labor.

Under the previous conservative government, Canberra had quarantined Australia’s 5G roll-out from Chinese telecommunications champion Huawei, had called for an international inquiry into the causes of Covid-19 and had introduced legislation to guard against growing international – especially, though not formally specified, Chinese – interference. Australia also stepped up its security and defence measures as Beijing militarised the South China Sea, intruded into what Japan claims as its maritime and air space, and amplified its threats against Taiwan.

After being elected, Albanese soon described his policy as: ‘To seek cooperation and positive relations with China where we can but stand up for Australian values and Australian national interests where we must.’

Penny Wong, the Australian Foreign Minister, referred frequently to the underlying goal as to ‘stabilise’ the relationship with the PRC. This involved the coordination of painstaking diplomatic efforts, disciplined public remarks, and subjugation of other connections and policy options deemed potentially upsetting to Beijing.

Kevin Magee, a former Australian diplomat, summarised this approach succinctly: ‘In order to get this far with Beijing, the Albanese government has dialled down its rhetoric on China but has also provided concessions on sensitive issues for China such as Taiwan, the Port of Darwin review, and the Magnitsky sanctions’ which were legislated but not activated over repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Darwin’s port, strategically located in Australia’s north, has been leased to Chinese corporation Landbridge until 2114.

The culmination of this process, and in many ways the key goal of Australian foreign policy in 2023, was the invitation for Albanese to meet Xi in Beijing, timed nicely to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first visit of an Australian prime minister to the PRC. This was by the late Gough Whitlam, a Labor Party hero-figure who had the year before diplomatically recognised the PRC.

Multiple challenges persist, for Australia and for its peers including Britain, as they scramble to find workable filters to screen out the bad and keep the good – chiefly economic – as the PRC keeps coming towards them, in every sector of life.

Albanese has suffered a challenging time on the domestic front, with cost of living pressures continuing to rise, and with the electorate rejecting by more than 60% a referendum seeking to introduce an indigenous ‘voice’ to parliament and government, in which Albanese had invested himself especially emotionally.  

But his global involvements have proven more fruitful, with both the AUKUS partnership with the United Kingdom and United States (US), and the Quad with the US, Japan and India, starting to develop habits of intensified cooperation. And with the exception of Manasseh Sogavare, the prickly prime minister of Solomon Islands, who has chosen to lean closer to the PRC, Australia’s Pacific Island and Southeast Asian neighbours have tended to welcome the closer attention paid by Canberra under Labor, with Wong visiting almost every country.

Step by step, Beijing began winding back its anti-Australia measures. Australian politicians were allowed to talk again with their Chinese equivalents (there are no true counterparts, given the party-dominated governance structures of the PRC), Australian journalist and mother of two Cheng Lei – charged long after her seizure with a bizarre ‘state secrets’ offence – was suddenly released, and the arrangements which had been guaranteed under the countries’ 2015 free trade agreement were mostly, slowly, restored by the PRC sector by sector.

Nevertheless, Albanese has persisted with Australia’s enhanced regional security involvements – albeit the associated increased defence spending to make them fully effective awaits implementation beyond the next Australian election.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s information for travellers to the PRC remains wary, asserting that Australians should ‘exercise a high degree of caution’ – advice which Albanese appears to have taken seriously. The Australian leader, well aware of the strength of Australian polling on the topic which finds most of the public view the PRC more as threat than opportunity – despite the more pro-PRC inclination of some Australian elites – focused on economic opportunity, and stayed well away from vaunting a David Cameron/George Osborne style ‘golden-era’.

Much was made in Australia of the special nature of the visit. But Xi – who since Covid-19 is travelling far less, and instead awaits others flying to Beijing – also met at the Great Hall that same day the leaders of Cuba, ‘good friends, good comrades, and good brothers’; Serbia, ‘iron friends’; and South Africa, that relationship now basking in a ‘golden-era’.

And despite the success of Albanese’s visit in diplomatic terms, Xi’s insistence on globalising his CCP’s core goal of making the world safe for itself by reconstructing international norms, laws and organisations will continue to challenge democracies everywhere, including Australia.

The main takeaway of the visit was that it is safe for Australian business to get back big-time into the Chinese market. This will be interpreted by some to mean that the federal government will manage the political risk on behalf of Australia Inc. However, any misstep by or within Australia, even inadvertent, may again trigger trouble from Beijing for businesses, and for innocent individuals.

And stability is a challenging goal with a partner which is undergoing semi-revolutionary change. The CCP is rapidly taking on massive areas of responsibility which its government had formerly administered – including science, tech, data and finance – with many former administrators removed, subsumed or replaced. What began as a purge of corruption when Xi was first appointed has become entrenched as a permanent, churning institutional testing of loyalty to Xi himself, who has personalised and centralised all power. In recent months Qin Gang and Li Shangfu, former foreign and defense minister respectively, have disappeared without clear explanation. The PRC agreed to re-establish some military-to-military communications with the US at the Xi-Biden talks in San Francisco on 15th November, but generally resists mutual ‘guardrails’ – which aim to prevent or diminish accidental crises – with Australia or its regional partners, viewing the concept as something which limits opportunities to advance its own positions.

Today, Beijing covets a degree of volatility, at home and abroad. Its relationships can resemble tests. If you pass one, there is applause. But more tests will follow.

The Economist has written that ‘many are studying the lessons of Australia’s escape from China’s grip.’ And much can indeed be learned. But multiple challenges persist, for Australia and for its peers including Britain, as they scramble to find workable filters to screen out the bad and keep the good – chiefly economic – as the PRC keeps coming towards them, in every sector of life.

Rowan Callick is a is a Fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute, and has been China Correspondent for both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review.

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