Albanese’s China visit: an ear to the future

Nov 8, 2023
Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, November 6, 2023. Anthony Albanese will hold talks in China with President Xi Jinping in the first visit to the Asian nation by a sitting prime minister since 2016. Image:AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Fifty years’ ago, the grainy black and white image of Whitlam with his ear pressed against the listening wall at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, led to the joke: What is being said to Gough? Answer: ‘Mei you!’ The ubiquities response then by Chinese service staff in restaurants and stores in those day, loosely, ‘don’t have any’.

They were the days of shortage economics. Today China is a cornucopia of goods and services, and workshop of the world in so many industries. Today the wall may have said to Prime Minister Albanese, ‘common prosperity’. Hardly a wag, but beguiling. That the Prime Minister was prepared to channel Gough on his first visit as PM, marking his predecessor’s fifty years ago is significant.

In the lead up to the visit, analysts had speculated that the Prime Minister would want to bury the Whitlam link lest he might appear to be too close to the ALP-China mythology. As another joke had it in Canberra: people would say that they had thought Marco Polo had discovered China, but it wasn’t until they went to Canberra to work in the bureaucracy that they learnt it had been Gough Whitlam!

That the PM has embraced the so-called Whitlam legacy on China is to be welcomed. It most certainly will be in electorates with substantial voters of Chinese heritage who turned so decisively against the China-baiting of the previous, Morrison government. Even the Opposition Leader, who while in government was one of the leading proponents of the China Threat and exponent of megaphone, bellicose diplomacy towards China, has moderated his tone.

With this visit, the Prime Minister and President Xi Jinping have again ‘normalised’ the bilateral relationship. Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her counterpart Wang Yi, worked diligently, intelligently, and creatively to ‘stabilise’ the relationship. This time there was no quick fix, as when in October 2009, then, Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang was urgently despatched to Canberra to prevent its downward spiral. Rather it has been a process of step-by-step carefully calibrated diplomacy.

But it is now time to move on. With Albanese’s visit, most, if not all the outstanding irritants in the relationship have or will be removed. It is to be hoped that the case of Dr Yang Hengjun can also be resolved, and his release secured, but we do not know the details involved and part of the basis of any bilateral relationship is that we respect, even if we don’t like, the other party’s judicial processes.

Any typical bilateral relationship between states will have at any one-time live, active disagreements. Think of Assange between the Australia and the US, or numerous trade disputes between Australia and the US, or Australia and the EU. For these we used to have recourse to the WTO until the US during the Trump Administration unilaterally wrecked the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism.

So, a normal bilateral relationship is not frictionless, and commentators and the Australia media need to be mindful not to bring a higher standard to bear when discussing the Australia-China relationship.

To speak of the relationship as having been ‘normalised’ is not to suggest that it has or will ever return to the effervescence of previous times, although on a careful reading of the history of the relationship it has never been entirely free of tensions. In recent days James Curran has charted its rocky course in the Australian Financial Review.

While Whitlam conceded that China could one day be a great nation in the world, he was mindful from the outset of the challenges this would present to Australia, especially from its different historical, cultural, and political experiences. All other Prime Ministers, perhaps except for Malcolm Fraser, have been as equally sober in their dealings with China.

To say there is no going back to pre-2016, when successive Liberal PMs led huge trade delegations to China and waxed lyrical about our shared golden future, is simply stating the obvious. China is simply too big and like all major powers too assertive on the world stage for that to ever be contemplated. Normalising the relationship as has now been achieved is not seeking to return to the past. The Prime Minister has made that abundantly clear on this trip to China.

Accusations of naivety or mental sponginess are all too easy to imply about those seeking to find a means of advancing multiple policy objectives with China. It is telling that no one in the media or the conservative commentariat called out President Biden’s gratuitous, condescending advice to our Prime Minister to ‘trust, but verify’.

Again, the easy innuendo slips in: Australia is unreliable in its management of its relations with China. And the implication is that Australia is naïve when it comes to understanding its own interests.

The Prime Minister should be congratulated for how he has managed to take the relationship to this point where there is now no need any longer to talk of ‘stabilisation’ or ‘normalisation’. He and Penny Wong have maintained forward momentum despite many efforts to frustrate what has been a complex political process, both domestically and bilaterally with China.

To be sure, outstanding issues remain on trade, consular, military, and strategic issues, the latter heightened by elevated US-China geopolitical competition. But Australia’s interests in any of these areas cannot be advanced without ongoing high-level political dialogue. That is what the Prime Minister set out to achieve and that is what he has done.


Original article published in the Australian Financial Review on 6 November, 2023

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