A symbolic, stabilising step is one thing – but do Australia and China have enough shared interests for progress?
Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping’s meeting comes in a world where the geopolitical dynamics have changed too much for a ‘reset’ to occur. Originally published in The Guardian.
Six years of silence is detrimental to any relationship. That silence was broken on Tuesday evening when the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and China’s president, Xi Jinping, met on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali. The highly anticipated meeting, analysed many times over before it even happened, is just the beginning of what will be a very different relationship.
What can we deduce from the 32-minute meeting? For all its brevity, it was a symbolic step towards stabilising the relationship, reopening channels of communication at the highest levels and addressing the multitude of challenges that beset the relationship.
In his opening remarks Albanese acknowledged the differences that have challenged both sides but also indicated that Australia won’t be abandoning core policies and principles. He said both sides had worked to “stabilise the relationship” ahead of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and China. Interestingly, Albanese again brought up the anniversary in his press conference after the meeting. Markers such as this are significant for the Chinese Communist party-state and mentioning it again suggests it is just as important a milestone for the Australian Labor party as it is for the Chinese.
Neither the meeting nor the 50th anniversary will reset the relationship per se. Much has happened in the last six years since the leaders of the two countries last met, and the geopolitical dynamics of the region – and the world – have changed too much for a “reset” to occur. Furthermore, an influential segment of Australia’s foreign policy and national security institutions has fundamentally reshaped how China is seen by the political class and the Australian public. That is, China is viewed through the lens of national security threat, and that perception is difficult to undo. While this isn’t a fait accompli and we would not want it to be so, Australian policymakers and the public ought to think about the relationship and take it as a starting point from which each country can move forward. Essentially, we must all acknowledge that Australia and China have different systems of government which, in many ways, shape how each sees the world.
Having different systems of government does not preclude either side from working together, but it does lead to clear differences in how some matters are perceived and what the resolutions ought to be, as in the case of the Uyghurs and Xinjiang.
For China, the closeness of Australia’s alliance with the US is viewed with suspicion. The Chinese party-state and its related institutions see Australia through the lens of the US. This is a fundamental challenge for Australia.
Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has tried to emphasise that Australia’s foreign policy is articulated and prosecuted along the lines of shared interests rather than values, distinct and separate from the US, as reflected in its recent national security strategy. If China continues to see Australia as being the same as the US, such a misunderstanding will only hamper any future progress.
Beyond trade blockages, future progress in Australia-China relations will only be made when each side can identify shared interests. The challenge is whether there are enough shared interests that are immediately tangible to push beyond the mantra of “complementary economies”.