Tea for two: Preparing for talks with China’s Foreign Minister

Mar 14, 2024
Chinese tea ceremony. Ceramic teapot made of clay and bowls on a wooden background.

We shall never get anywhere with the Australia-China relationship if we are not pragmatic, as Bismarck famously said. While we must avoid over-ambitious goals, forthcoming official talks with China’s top foreign affairs official Wang Yi will present a unique opportunity to test the government’s relationship reset.

A two-day visit by Wang Yi later in March is still to be officially confirmed. It was predicted by the Stephen Dziedzic and Bang Xiao of the ABC in an article published on 28 February and this prompted me to put some thoughts on paper.

Talks will parallel the expected resumption of the Foreign and Strategic Dialogue between senior officials, also awaiting announcement of dates. The Wang/Wong meeting will be an opportunity to shape future relations in ways that are beneficial to Australia, or they could put us back in the freezer. For what they are worth, I present some unsolicited advice as someone who has long been involved in Australia-China relations.

Kandy Wong, writing in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post on 29 February, says that Wang Yi “is expected to discuss a range of thorny issues”. She lists a new science and technology agreement, the AUKUS alliance and the sentencing of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, and she notes that bilateral trade has “largely normalised”.

The first consideration in any negotiation is to set realistic goals. China’s national policies, have just been extensively described and promoted at Beijing’s “Two Sessions”, the annual meeting of the top legislature and political advisory body. In a press conference last week, Wang Yi set out the principles of China’s foreign diplomacy. There is no point trying to change any of these announcements, which are aimed at the domestic audience. Presuming that Canberra will focus on the “thorny issues” mentioned in the South China Morning Post, the key to progress will be to limit expectations to small and achievable steps.

The second consideration is reciprocity. Regarding relations with China, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has said Australia will “cooperate where we can, disagree where we must”. Reciprocity is always the best way to achieve cooperation, but sadly it is rarely mentioned in comments about the bilateral relationship. We can expect press commentary on Wang Yi’s visit to revolve around China dropping tariffs on Australian wine imports. Trade negotiations in recent years have generally concentrated on opening the China market for Australian goods, services and investments, ignoring imbalances of opportunity for China in this market. Reciprocity was dumped in 2020 when the Turnbull government blocked the Chinese telecom giant Huawei from operating a 5G network in Australia, a move that contradicted CHAFTA, the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries, which specified that telecommunication companies’ concerns would be addressed in a joint Trade in Services Committee. An alternative approach could have stressed reciprocal access for Australia.

Reciprocity issues are not confined to trade and business, but they have not been observed in many areas of the bilateral relationship. There are no Australian media representatives in China. Reciprocal arrangements for both countries should be a matter of priority. China should be requested to allow Australian schools and universities to set up campuses and to permit the registration of Australian NGOs in China while the same facilities should be offered to China Confucius Institutes and Chinese civil societies.

Scientific exchanges should, by definition, be reciprocal. However, after Washington fabricated accusations of economic espionage against Chinese American scientists (later proved false), Australian security organisations followed the US lead. Australian academics have been placed under surveillance. China certainly places a high priority on reaching world-best standards in science and technology and is keen to engage with us and other Western nations. Rather than threaten and restrict our people, why do we not propose to Beijing that Australian academics should be allowed to lecture, teach and lead research in China without restriction?

The issue of human rights lends itself to reciprocal treatment. The pitfall here is to be preachy. Too much human rights dialogue has been based on the principle of universalist rights, not allowing for local or national interpretation, or on the primacy of individual rights, which are the most highly regarded in the West. In recent years China has learned from our preachiness and has adopted a “holier-than-thou” attitude, attacking racism in the US, and the treatment of Indigenous peoples and refugees in Australia. Rather than engaging in a tit-for-tat argument about which rights abuses are worse, we should respond to such attacks by welcoming them, noting that they confirm these are legitimate topics for discussion at the official level.

Human rights are not simply important, they are essential. We must campaign for the abolishment of capital punishment everywhere, including in China. Let us also acknowledge that Australia does not have a perfect human rights record, noting that this reflects the fact that our democracy is also imperfect.

The third consideration in negotiations is to highlight the benefits to each side of any proposal. There are problems in China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea. When mentioning these, the tendency is for officials in Australia and the US to refer to “the rules-based international order”, which sounds to the uninitiated like a global order created for, maintained by and benefiting the US. The rules are in fact those both subscribe to in membership of the United Nations and its associated multilateral bodies. Since the 1980s, China has benefited enormously from engagement in the global trading system. Surely China’s future growth must be predicated on continuing and deepening such openness.

We should also raise the benefits of open shared information and scientific research. This can be exemplified by the multilateral system of the World Health Organisation, which was crucial for the management of COVID-19 particularly in Global South countries. Certainly, the WHO and other multilateral bodies such as the World Trade Organisation are in need of reform, but it was former President Donald Trump who killed the WTO dispute resolution mechanism, not China. Both China and Australia will benefit from rebuilding it and other bodies.

My final piece of advice for the Wang/Wong meeting is to serve a good quality tea, China’s great contribution to world culture and dialogue.

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