Australia-China relations: Diplomacy and a win “Without a Fight”

Nov 9, 2023
Australia and China flags with Speech Bubbles. 3D Illustration

We should be greatly encouraged by Prime Minister Albanese’s visit to China. Isolation is always a bad thing. Dialogue is essential for relationships to be sustained or nourished. This is the most important aspect of the visit, far outweighing in importance any specific outcome.

The visit coincides with the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s visit to Beijing as Prime Minister in 1973. Whitlam achieved an extraordinary breakthrough in diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and helped to shape Australia’s relations with China and Asia over successive decades. The coincidence of timing meant that there were some symbolic elements of Albanese’s visit that were not lost on either the Australian or Chinese sides.

When Chinese scholars at a recent Australian Studies conference in Beijing that I attended heard that a date had been set for the visit, they were very optimistic that bilateral relations would improve. Chinese officials have called for them to “advance” and the Prime Minister himself has subsequently used this term. Australian delegates to the conference were generally more cautious than their Chinese colleagues, and more conscious of the importance for Australia of ANZUS and of maintaining good relations with the US as well as with China, foreseeing that this could limit easy development of bilateral relations by involvement of security concerns.

Clearly, Prime Minister Albanese’s visit does not mark a Whitlam-style dramatic shift in policy. Rather, the objective has always been clearly stated as to “stabilise” relations. Even this moderate goal is welcome, especially in a world where partisanship, chauvinism and open hostility threaten the international cooperation that are essential if we are to meet global existential challenges including climate change.

The first focus of the visit was trade. Here there is potential for flow-on benefits to the economies of both countries. China is our number one trade partner and even though there has been some useful diversification of export markets, for most goods and services there is no other country that can pick up all the slack that has been lost in China in the last few years. I expect to see trade improving quite quickly. On first arrival in Shanghai, the Prime Minister visited the International Import Expo, where some 250 Australian companies are exhibiting. There were already breakthroughs in the trade portfolio before the visit; restrictions on barley, hay and wine have been lifted or are under review.

One major trade issue discussed in Beijing was China’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement signed between Australia and ten other countries in Chile in 2018. This is not a simple matter and not surprisingly, it could not be resolved in the PM’s two days of talks in Beijing. Surely there will be further discussions and Australia will take into consideration the attitudes and policy platforms of other members of the CPTPP such as Japan and Canada before deciding whether to support the Chinese bid for membership.

The talks that the PM held in Beijing were nevertheless substantial. His meeting with President Xi Jinping lasted over one hour and was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere. There were important international issues discussed, including for Israel’s attacks on Gaza and the Ukraine War. There were also global issues that surely offer positive room for cooperation, and there were problems in bilateral relations that needed to be addressed. The PM told the press that he raised concerns about human rights abuses in China, including the treatment of the Uighurs and other minority peoples in Xinjiang Province.

Speaking to the press, the PM described his meeting with Xi as “warm”, “positive” and “constructive”. He stressed that the meeting was intended to build a relationship, engaging and “building a positive nature”. It was not “transactional”. In other words, this meeting was to lay a foundation for ongoing exchanges at ministerial and official levels to pursue a range of bilateral and multilateral issues over months and years to come. I would expect annual high-level talks to resume in 2024.

Scholars in both Australia and China, including those that I met at the conference I attended last month, have found in recent years that their interactions have been limited by increased government regulation based on security concerns. I hope that following this visit, normal academic exchanges will be restored and that full and frank discussion of matters of common concern will be permitted. Academic colleagues are hopeful that they will be able to engage more with Chinese counterparts and to contribute more to understanding of China, its culture and history.

Covid affected normal relations, making travel impossible for a while. Travel restrictions have eased but more can be done on both sides. There should be more direct flights between various Australian and Chinese cities. I hope also that visas will be cheaper and easier to obtain. Some incompatibilities have emerged in recent years between internet systems and payment systems that complicate travel, and I hope some way can be found to reduce these barriers.

Both Australian and Chinese universities face some financial problems. Now the Chinese and Australian governments are serious about advancing relations, they can consider some additional funding to support relevant research and teaching programs in tertiary institutions in both countries.

Above all, Prime Minister Albanese’s visit and talks are an indication that diplomacy matters. Let there be no more talk of the need to prepare for war with China. I take it as a good omen that this year’s Melbourne Cup was won by “Without a fight”.

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