Que sera sera: “Australia will be Australia; China will be China.”

Mar 22, 2024
China and Australia flag together relations textile cloth fabric texture.

Penny Wong has a new mantra for Australia China relations.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong previously said, “Co-operate with China where we can, disagree where we must.” This week, she has told the press that in her meeting with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi she described her outlook as “Australia will be Australia; China will be China.” In other words, “Whatever will be, will be.”

I find this disappointing, to some extent cheerful, but uninspiring and fatalistic. It certainly lacks vision.

On 20 March, China’s Foreign Minister and Director of the CCP Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi participated in a Foreign and Strategic Dialogue meeting in Canberra. Bilateral relations had warmed up enough to justify resumption of official connections and a return to some kind of “stability”, to use another of Penny Wong’s formulations.

“A stable relationship between Australia and China doesn’t just happen, it needs ongoing work,” she told the press. In coming months, this would include bilateral talks on consular cases, defence and trade, and discussion of regional and global issues such as the Pacific, climate and energy cooperation and “enhancing understanding and transparency” – a neat formulation that might mean anything or nothing.

It seems that the relationship is back on track, but what track that is, and where the track leads, is not at all clear. The world in 2024 is a big and scary place. The World Meteorological Organisation now describes global climate indicators as “off the chart”. The world population is ageing. Another pandemic cannot be ruled out. The UN has warned that the threat of nuclear warfare is at its highest point for decades. Refugee numbers are escalating with wars and famines across several continents. Human rights are being abused in Gaza as well as in China. Disasters proliferate.

It is against the backdrop of this rapidly changing world that Penny Wong and her officials should consider the relative importance of bilateral tariffs on wind turbines or Barossa shiraz wines and the fate of the panda in the Adelaide Zoo. Hopefully, they will also question how Australian acquisition of nuclear submarines at some distant future point can possibly contribute to resolution of the ever-increasing array of global problems.

For his part, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Australia China Business Council that China-Australia relations were comprehensive and multi-ranging, and the common interests of both sides far outweighed their differences, so the two countries should be partners rather than rivals. He particularly mentioned that both countries should address climate change and other global challenges. He said that he trusted that Australia would pursue an independent foreign policy, and stressed that China advocated multilateralism and a “more just and equitable” international order.

Some commentators have interpreted this as a subtle indication that Australia should go easy on China regarding human rights issues and the South China Sea, but it can also be seen as providing a broader perspective on the international scene. Chen Hong of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University, put it succinctly in an interview he gave to the Financial Times, “You can never step into the same river twice. The world is changing and the geostrategic scenarios are quite different.”

It is likely that Chinese Premier Li Qiang will visit Australia later this year. To regularise relations before then, extensive consultations and negotiations between Canberra and Beijing will be required. Of course, all dialogue between Australia and China is welcome. It is my hope that it will be more purposeful than “Australia will be Australia; China will be China.”

In 1956, Prime Minister Anthony Eden adopted such an insouciant attitude in his dealings with Egyptian President Nasser, that ultimately resulted in British humiliation in the Suez Crisis. 1956 was also the year when Doris Day sang:

“Que sera sera. Whatever will be, will be.

The future’s not ours to see. Que sera sera.”

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