Xi is no longer Dr Fu Manchu?

Nov 18, 2022
Penny Wong - DFAT official photo

After the meeting between Xi and Albanese, we will need patient diplomacy well away from the megaphone and from vested interests in defence industries. China is here to stay and love it or hate it we must learn to live with it. The present government is looking more like it understands this.

Public messages by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister on relations with China have been encouraging and may have some influence on the media reporting which, as Wanning Sun’s excellent article in P&I showed, has been dismal. Anthony Albanese’s comments after his meeting with Xi Jinping and Penny Wong’s interview with Sarah Ferguson on the 7.30 Report showed how it should be done. Both handled shop-worn one-eyed questions calmly and effectively. A journey of a thousand li begins with one step and that step has been taken. Where it will lead remains to be seen.

As now seems to be agreed by most people, the meeting between the two leaders was a positive step. The crucial point is that it took place. The Prime Minister pointed out that anyone who thought this meeting would bring instant results on trade was being totally unrealistic. His response when asked whether the interview had led to results on Xinjiang human rights issues and the two jailed journalists was similar. He said that he had raised the issues but that “it doesn’t work like that”. He pointed out that negotiations on a range of issues, including trade, would take time and be carried out at various levels. Hopefully, Xi’s encouraging remarks would facilitate this.

The Foreign Minister’s interview on the 7.30 report was interesting in several ways. Her handling of aggressive questioning by Sarah Ferguson was a master class. She did not let her interrogator get away with the kind of bullying that many people put up with. When Sarah Ferguson rudely interrupted an answer by beginning with the words “I don’t mean to interrupt.” the Minister said “you just did”. At the end of the rant on a different subject, the Minister simply ignored it and went back to what she was saying before the interruption.

On matters of substance, the Minister refused to be drawn on attempts to get a gotcha moment and the harping on the litany of media cliches that seem to be the stock in trade of those who know little about China. Most importantly, she made a point which few journalists, or politicians for that matter, have highlighted. She said that Australia would continue to stand up for its values and interests as China would do for its. This contrasts with the common media approach that suggests that the problems will only be solved if China resiles from all the action it has taken against Australia. However, it takes two to tango and, as both Australian leaders have indicated, negotiations are the answer and negotiation means bargaining. If we want something from China, we will have to offer something in return. We cannot take the approach that our ways are absolutely right and that anyone who wants to do things differently is, by definition, wrong and even perhaps evil. If we want to do it our way, do not other countries have the same right?

The vexed question of Taiwan was handled well. Both stated clearly that our position has not changed. We have a one China policy and support the long standing status quo which has worked well and we hope this will not change. Interestingly, President Biden made similar remarks. None of these three believed invasion of Taiwan was imminent. President Xi made the Chinese position clear but did not put a time frame on it.

President Xi indicated indirectly that the change of government in Australia was why this meeting was possible which no doubt pleased the Australians present. Whether or not you believe this is true or was just something to justify what Xi was going to do anyway is not very important. What matters is that a door has opened even though there is a long way to go and many pitfalls still lie in wait. The present Government’s has moved away from the bellicose Australians statements of its predecessor but what will happen to military procurements which are clearly directed at China as a threat remains to be seen. Australian actions against Chinese trade remain in place. The Government can blame the previous government for anything it wants to change and the now Opposition is in a difficult position especially as led by the uber hawk Peter Dutton. Perhaps the fact that the SMH front page banner “Dutton for governor” was about a TV character in Yellowstone says it all!

Negotiations should take place in private despite media pressure and are likely to be drawn out. They will be affected by events elsewhere especially US/China relations and our relations with the USA. China will probably try to move us away from our dependence on the US but live with it so long as it does not threaten China. Domestic developments in China and the Chinese economy will be relevant. Political developments in the USA will also affect both China and Australia. We will need patient diplomacy well away from the megaphone and from vested interests in defence industries. China is here to stay and love it or hate it we must learn to live with it. The present government is looking more like it understands this and is treating it less like an exercise in chest thumping domestic politics, but many political complexities remain. War between China and the USA would be a disaster for all concerned. Australia would inevitably be drawn into it through our alliance with the US and would become a target in a way we have not been since WW2. We can only hope good sense prevails all round. For now, patient negotiations are the order of the day.

The game is afoot.

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