Defrosting relations with China a ‘real possibility’

There will be no ‘re-set’ like we saw in the heady days of 2015 but Australia can reduce chill factor

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s new government means an improved trajectory in Australia-China relations is a real possibility.

Sure, there will be no “re-set” like we saw in the heady days of 2015. The world has changed. Australia and China certainly have.

And, of course, Beijing will need to be ready to chart a different course, not just Canberra.

After all, in 2020 it was China’s decision to respond to political disagreements by cutting off senior-level dialogue and hitting Australia’s exports.

Further tempering the outlook is that the architect of Beijing’s assertive foreign policy turn, President Xi Jinping, is expected to be re-instated for a third term when the Communist Party of China meets for its 20th National Congress later this year.

But the previous Morrison government’s actions and reactions were not irrelevant.

The current dire state of bilateral relations between Canberra and Beijing was not inevitable. It is a fact, for example, that the Morrison administration abandoned the more diplomatic approach it had pursued in 2019.

Rock bottom in Australian diplomacy came in March this year, when an airliner crashed in southern China, killing 132 people.

Short statement

Yet in contrast to the leaders of the United Kingdom, Canada and India – all countries that have had their own challenges with Beijing – neither the then PM Scott Morrison nor his Foreign Minister Marise Payne saw any reason to issue even a short statement of condolences.

Imagining Canberra has no agency to promote a relationship recovery also misses the fact every other capital in the Asia-Pacific region has managed to maintain relations with China in a more constructive state.

A recent poll by the Australia-China Relations Institute shows the Australian public recognise the current situation is not as one-sided as Canberra or Beijing like to suggest.

A clear majority of respondents, 78%, agreed that “the responsibility for improving the relationship between Australia and China lies with both countries.”

Some commentators insist there is no prospect of an improvement.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong has room to maneuver. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

They typically point to there being a bipartisan agreement that “China has changed” and to the overwhelming agreement between the major political parties on the suite of policies justified in response.

But this assessment dismisses the role and value of diplomacy.

As Allan Gyngell, former head of the Office of National Assessments said:

It is not beyond the capacity of effective diplomacy to return the situation between Australia and China to something more closely approximating that of other United States allies.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra will have cabled back to Beijing the conciliatory diplomatic touches incoming Foreign Minister Penny Wong has pursued from the opposition benches.

Morrison has claimed:

Australia has done nothing to injure [the] partnership [with China], nothing at all.

Plane crash tragedy

But in May last year, Wong insisted on the differences between Australia’s interests and China’s interests, “do not mean that there’s nothing we can do. They don’t mean that there’s no room for improvement in our own actions.”

And unlike the Morrison government, Wong took time to express her condolences after the China plane crash tragedy in March.

Another difference is she looks beyond just Washington and London for insight into Australia’s challenges.

In November last year, she singled out Singapore, saying:

Their insight into China, their insight into the region, are second to none […] [Singaporean] Prime Minister Lee [Hsien Loong] is a thinker and a leader whose writing and speeches on these issues, I think, are second to none.

Australia and China have had a difficult relationship. Image: File

It was Singaporean Prime Minister Lee who stood next to Morrison last June and offered the following advice:

There will be rough spots [with China] […] you have to deal with them. But deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going and not issues which add up to an adversary, which you are trying to suppress.

There’s one other factor pointing to a more positive future. Beijing has form in using the arrival of a new government as an opportunity to undertake a face-saving adjustment.

The Australia-China relationship began to sour during the government of Malcolm Turnbull between September 2015 and August 2018. His foreign minister, Julie Bishop, did not visit China in the final two and a half years of her tenure.

Morrison was the Turnbull government minister responsible for signing off on the ban of Chinese technology company Huawei from Australia’s 5G rollout.

Yet when Morrison subsequently emerged as prime minister, Beijing took the opportunity to invite his new foreign minister for a formal visit less than three months later. A month after Morrison won another term in May 2019, he secured a meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping.

Dismal failure

Beijing would now also recognize that any plan it once had to change Canberra’s political decision-making by disrupting Australia’s trade has been a dismal failure.

It not only cratered the Australian elite and public opinion but damaged China’s reputation as a responsible great power and reliable trade partner elsewhere –notably in North America and Europe.

All this raises the prospect that when the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Australia and the People’s Republic rolls around in December, the occasion might now be marked with some celebration – not just awkward silence.

James Laurenceson is a director and professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) of the University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.