Penny Wong should go to Beijing for the 50th Anniversary

Dec 18, 2022
Penny Wong - DFAT official photo

On 21 December, it will be exactly 50 years since a joint communique establishing diplomatic relations between Australia and the People’s Republic of China was signed in Paris by each country’s Ambassador. To mark the event, it would be normal practice for a ministerial visit in either direction to occur. China is big on commemorative occasions. It does them well.

As with politicians everywhere, such events primarily have a domestic audience in mind. In China, they are regarded as important to underline the legitimacy of the system and reaffirm to the people that China is an accepted part of the international community. They also confer recognition on and acceptance of the visitor and the country the Minister represents.

Six months ago, it would have been out of the question to expect such a visit to occur. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had been frozen solid for several years. Chinese ministers and officials would not take calls or receive representations from their Australian counterparts as is typically done in the normal course of business.

Having painted Australia into a corner, the attitude in Canberra policy and think tank circles was then to declare victory for their policies. That Australia was alone in its corner was presented as a virtue. Australia was said to be leading the world. Australia understood in ways that others did not, that a country’s values in the face of the China Threat could only be defended by isolating itself from the world’s second (on some measures) biggest economy, biggest trading nation, the biggest market by a large margin for most countries in the world, including Australia.

Australia had made itself into an outlier. By holding fast to the mantra that China had changed and not Australia, Canberra disempowered the country by denying agency to it in managing relations with China. The implications of the changed China shibboleth were that it was in China’s hands alone to fix the relationship. We could do nothing but present ourselves to the world as victims of bullying.

Apart from neo-con Washington think tank types, who have cultivated many of their Australian counterparts in a devastatingly successful effort at foreign influence, and anti-China elements in the Japanese Government, few would be able to recognise Australia’s behaviour as being consistent with sensible diplomacy.

It required a perversely distorted view of Australia’s national interest to see the merits in becoming an outlier. Egging Australia along, the Japanese Ambassador in Canberra, who is a busy booster of the China Threat, once famously and ludicrously attempted to equate Japan’s having difficult bilateral relations with China ‘for which diplomacy exists to help manage’ with being an isolated outlier like Australia.

Few countries have such a fractious and fraught relationship with China than Japan, but normal, cordial, diplomatic relations are sustained, while the economic relationship goes from strength to strength. Perhaps if Japan were to join AUKUS or the Five Eyes it might help Australia to learn how to walk both sides of the street.

However, since the election of the Albanese Government it may not be necessary. Under Penny Wong as Foreign Minister, Australia has seen a return of diplomacy to the forefront of the management of its international relations. The Australia-China relationship is in a far better place than it was before the last election. Australia is no longer an outlier. Ministers are speaking directly to each other and contacts across the board are being eased. Of course, the leaders bilateral meeting in Bali at the G20 was the chapeau to all that activity.

Among many other things, an important outcome from de-icing the relationship has been that issues that do genuinely offend Australia’s values, such as the unexplained detention of Australian citizens in China, a range of human rights matters from Xinjiang to Hong Kong, and press and religious freedoms within China – can now be raised, explained, and discussed at the most senior levels of government.

Those in Canberra who wanted Australia to carry the spear against China on behalf of the US or Japan disingenuously cloaked their arguments with defending Australian values. Australian values are based on openness and a willingness to engage in talk, not hostility and silence. There was no way Australia could assist those Australians languishing in Chinese prisons, nor defend Australia’s values, or advance its interests more broadly, by shouting from its isolated corner.

China had changed and so had we. From around 2017, as detailed in my book, Australia decided without any public discussion to join the US in containing China and treating it as a strategic competitor. The US for its own reasons flipped its China policy from engagement to containment.

But since the election in May, Australia has changed again too. Albanese and Wong have clearly articulated a policy of engagement with China. Significantly, it is engagement both when we agree and engagement when we disagree. Gone is the bellicose language of the previous government and with it the binary, Manichean mismanagement of the relationship in terms of Australia’s interests.

With the easing of Covid restrictions leaders from around the world are beginning to visit Beijing again, most recently the German Chancellor. New Zealand’s Prime Minister has also said she intends to visit Beijing with a business delegation early in the new year. And President Xi Jinping is also on the move, most recently to Saudi Arabia where the Saudi’s intended to show Washington that in a multi-poplar world they too can walk on both sides of the street.

With Beijing’s pointless and utterly counter-productive trade measures still hanging over the relationship with Australia, it is not possible for the Australian Government to move quickly towards a more normal regularity and pattern of engagement. But with the warming achieved so far by efforts on both sides, and the long-term symbolism of the 50th Anniversary, if Covid and her diary permit, a visit by Penny Wong to Beijing next week would fit comfortably within her own framework for managing the relationship. It would certainly be in Australia’s interests for her to do so.

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