Xi and Albanese: Can we again seize the opportunity?

Nov 18, 2022
Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets China’s President Xi Jinping in a bilateral meeting during the 2022 G20 summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Tuesday, November 15, 2022. Image: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

The meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Albanese could result in an overdue improvement in relations between our two countries. But real improvements will take time and a lot of goodwill. Will Richard Marles be a stumbling block??

The language of the thirty-two minute meeting was cordial with President Xi attaching ‘great importance’ to Prime Minister Albanese’s opinion and that the relationship with Australia was worth ‘cherishing’.

For forty-five years after the establishment of diplomatic relations we got on well together. But the mood changed after 2015 when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister.

Encouraged by some of his advisers, the Australian government took many actions that upset China – hostile speeches by Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison and other Ministers, dumping actions on Chinese aluminium and steel products, rejecting Chinese investment in non-strategic industries like dairy products and leading the campaign against Huawei’s 5G system. Homes of Chinese journalists in Australia were raided and, to please President Trump, we publicly blamed China for the outbreak of Covid-19 at Wuhan.

More recently, arrangements between Australia and the US on nuclear submarines and the rotation of US nuclear capable B-52 bombers in North Australia has not helped.

The Australian government hostility towards China was supported and encouraged by our media that is heavily influenced by a Washington-centric view of the world. We really do have a White Man’s Media.

In response, China introduced trade sanctions on a range of Australian products in 2020 – including wine, barley, beef, lobsters and some coal. Ministers in former Coalition governments, and now Prime Minister Albanese, criticise China for $20 billion sanctions on Australian products. I think this $20 billion is bogus. And our media keeps repeating it whilst failing to mention how the dispute first began with Malcolm Turnbull.

Despite the obstructive action taken on both sides, two-way trade has continued to be strong particularly with recent Chinese purchases of iron ore and natural gas.

Whilst I hold Australia rather than China most responsible for the tension, the Australian public has clearly supported the Australian government in the disagreements. Our media has played a big part in promoting the hostility to China. It has been a shameful performance from many of our ‘senior’ journalists and I don’t exclude ABC journalists with their attack dog style.

There are good reasons for both Australia and China to repair the relationship.

China is our biggest trading partner by far and as China further grows and develops, that trade will increase. Australians would suffer heavily if there was a major disruption of Australia-China trade.

Hopefully the meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Albanese will start to put relations back on track after they have been foolishly and dangerously damaged.

In any relationship there will be problems but those difficulties can best be solved through diplomatic discussions and compromise.

This meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Albanese comes 50 years after diplomatic relations were established by the Whitlam Labor government with which I was closely associated. In fact, I accompanied Gough Whitlam on his visit to China in 1973 to celebrate establishing diplomatic relations. I recall that Gough Whitlam was hosted on this visit by Deng Xiaoping in what was, I think, Deng’s first public appearance after being purged.

Gough Whitlam died several years ago but I am sure that he would have been disturbed about the unfortunate approach of successive Australian governments to relations with China. In 1972 and in subsequent years Gough Whitlam made it very clear that he would not be a patsy for the US.

Gough Whitlam never tired of proclaiming that ‘China is one country. Beijing is it capital and Taiwan is a province.’

I hope that Prime Minister Albanese also emphasised to President Xi that just as Gough Whitlam supported the policy of ‘one China’ so he also supports that policy without qualification.

Such a clear declaration by Prime Minister Albanese would have been a great help in getting Australia-China relations back on track despite the background noise coming from the Americans.

This meeting provides an opportunity for PM Albanese to take personal ownership of the relationship with China. Paul Keating showed how that could be done with President Suharto in relations with Indonesia.

We have argued in Pearls and Irritations that China is not a military threat to Australia. But we do run risks because we are becoming a proxy for the US in our region. And Defence Minister Marles is a very enthusiastic spear carrier for the US and appears to welcome the support of Dutton and Hastie.

That spear carrying process for the US began with Julia Gillard, Stephen Smith and Kim Beazley, inviting US Marines into Darwin. Minister Marles with his ‘Defence in Depth’ is now supporting the acquisition of AUKUS attack submarines to operate against China on the Chinese coast and the rotation of nuclear armed B52s through Tindal to threaten China.

China is not a military threat but the alleged threat is used to justify our support for a very ‘dangerous ally’. The defence of Australia has become a secondary issue.

Allowing ourselves to be a proxy or patsy for the US against China must stop and there is one person who can do. It is our Prime Minister, if he can build on the relationship with President Xi.

It would also honour the Labor legacy of Gough Whitlam, who strongly held the view that foreign troops should not be stationed in Australia except in an emergency or under a United Nations Mandate. Think US Marines in Darwin and B-52s in Tindal today.

Prime Minister Albanese has good domestic political reason to get the relationship with China back on track. Over a million loyal Chinese Australians have felt victimised by the anti-China campaigns of the Turnbull and Morrison Governments, supported by some Australian journalists.

Chinese Australians expressed their frustration at the 2022 elections when the ‘Chinese vote’ swung decisively to the ALP in the key seats of Parramatta, Reid, Bennelong, Chisholm and Tangney.

The ALP owes its majority to these ‘Chinese votes’. But they are not locked in ALP voters. They expressed their concerns by voting against the Coalition that had cast doubts about their loyalty.

I am sure that Anthony Albanese will take these ‘Chinese votes’ into account as he tries to restore the relationship with China.

He is off to a promising start with his meeting with President Xi.

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