Park the hyperbole about Wong’s historic visit
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Park the hyperbole about Wong’s historic visit

The two countries may be renegotiating a fresh framework for diplomatic ties, but they are doing it with palpable wariness on both sides. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.


After Penny Wong announced she would be visiting Beijing on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations with China, one newspaper briefly headlined the trip as “historic”.

That is doubtless accurate in as much as the history books might one day record the foreign minister’s trip in any minute chronicle of bilateral relations.

But the commentariat should park the hyperbole for the moment. A relationship which took some years to comprehensively crumble cannot be glued back together overnight.

The two countries may be renegotiating a fresh framework for diplomatic ties, but they are doing it with palpable wariness on both sides.

Just look at their statements since ministerial-level talks were rekindled a few months ago. There is a touch of nostalgia for the good old days, at least in Australia, for Gough Whitlam’s pioneering trip in 1971, but little warmth, not even of the faux diplomatic kind.

We are ... at the everything-has-changed, nothing-has-changed moment with China.

Instead, there are firm pronouncements of national interest out of Beijing and Canberra, with stiff agreement that both might benefit from a recommencement of political dialogue.

Australia’s statement about the Wong visit says we are “marking” the 50th anniversary, not commemorating or celebrating it. China speaks of Australia with the same studied formality and restraint.

Such language doesn’t just reflect reality, it also recognises the deeply embedded view within both systems that the trust between the two countries will take a long time to rebuild.

In that spirit, it is hard to see the announcement of any thundering bilateral initiatives during Wong’s visit, nor the lifting of the plethora of trade measures against Australian industry designed to punish Canberra for its political sins.

Nor should one expect the pre-emptory release of the two imprisoned Australian citizens, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, both jailed now for years without the charges against them ever having been detailed.

Paradoxically, the best news could be an announcement that they had been convicted of whatever they have been charged with. That would clear the way for their release on medical grounds.

In Beijing, Wong and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, might announce they have agreed to a restart of the two countries’ once regular policy dialogues but, for the moment, not much more.

Still, the reasons for even a modest restart in bilateral dialogue are clear and compelling enough for both countries.

A new government in Australia open about its desire to turn down the diplomatic temperature. The failure of China’s efforts at trade coercion. The invasion of Ukraine, which has reignited the strategic value of commodity exporters. All have played a role in breaking the ice.

Australia is also benefitting from a much larger reassessment by President Xi Jinping of Beijing’s assertive foreign policy of recent years, known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy for the delight it took in lacerating China’s critics.

The wolf warrior diplomats at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing have not suffered professionally. Indeed, they have been promoted. But they are now more disciplined about their targets.

Xi has clearly judged that Beijing needs some diplomatic breathing space after several years in which China’s behaviour has seen its public standing plummet in just about every advanced economy.

At the recent G20 summit in Bali, Xi met nine of the other leaders in attendance, or 10 if you count his public berating of Canada’s Justin Trudeau to complain about the alleged leaking of an earlier conversation.

Most importantly, Xi met for three hours with Joe Biden, their first in-person sit-down since the US President took office in January, 2021. A senior US delegation will soon visit China for further talks.

Australians often mistakenly view their relations with China in a silo. In truth, we are playing on a much bigger stage.

Australia’s commitment to the US alliance, the AUKUS grouping, and the Quad partnership, which brings in Japan and India, is unshakable.

But Wong still has an opportunity to re-establish Australia as an independent regional actor in the eyes of Beijing, and not as a mere cipher for Washington.

With Xi struggling to bring China out of its longstanding COVID-zero policy and its hammer blow to the economy, the Chinese leader has, in fact, been backing and filling on all manner of policy fronts recently.

In the country’s peak economic forum last week, Xi tried to dispel the widespread conviction that he has it in for the entrepreneurs who drive the economy in China. “I have always supported private enterprises,” he said.

The bigger point that Xi was making – and one which will be just as important to Australia in the diplomatic reawakening – is that Beijing is refocusing on growth in the short and medium term.

For Australia, however, the benefits might be tempered by the launch of a new state company to act as a central buying authority for iron ore, by far our biggest export.

No one knows how or whether the new Chinese entity will work in practice. But every dollar it manages to bring prices down will eat into returns for shareholders and the Treasury in Canberra.

We are then, if you like, at the everything-has-changed, nothing-has-changed moment with China. Beijing opens one door, while it tries to close another. Australians had better get used to it.


Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.