What should we talk to Beijing about?
There no longer seems to be a question of whether Australia and China should be talking. It’s now down to how we actually do so. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.
Ahead of the election, there were many people, in Australia and abroad, who tried ahead to make sure they were well positioned to take advantage of a possible Labor victory.
Among them was Xiao Qian, Beijing’s man in Canberra, who arrived as ambassador in January this year with a clear brief to test Australia’s willingness to shift its policy on China.
Beijing had long given up on Scott Morrison’s government, and vice versa. Both sides were too well dug in to their foxholes and had fired too many diplomatic rounds at each other to be able to come out.
In readiness to wipe the slate clean, Xiao has been doing the rounds in Canberra and elsewhere, talking to ministers and their shadows, retired officials, chief executives, academics and think tankers.
This week, he spoke to The Australian Financial Review in his first media interview, emphasising the two countries needed to fix their “political relationship” before progress could be made in other areas.
It goes without saying that Canberra’s man in Beijing, Graham Fletcher, would kill for the kind of welcome that Xiao is getting in Australia.
Remember when Morrison as prime minister was criticised for not accepting Xiao’s request for a meeting? Fletcher, by contrast, remains in the deep freeze in Beijing, unable to see top officials and shunned by scholars and the big state enterprises that invest in Australia alike.
The Chinese approach can be summed up as follows: we expect you to be open on the basis of your system’s values, whereas we remain closed to you on the basis on our system.
It is hardly churlish to point this out, as it is all of a piece with a deliberate strategy to place pressure on Australia at all points of the spectrum until we crack.
None of this means, of course, that we should not take Xiao’s modest charm offensive at face value and assess what is on offer.
Xiao is surely right, too, when he says that nothing will happen in the bi-lateral relationship unless there is a political fix at the top.
The Chinese bureaucracy will only feel empowered to move with a signal from the very top. The same is true for Australia.
It would be good, too, to get past the insidious aspects of Australia’s recent China debate – namely, the brutal policing of any speech and contact with Chinese officials by the local thought police to render them all somehow treasonous.
Look at our Quad partners, if you want guidance in how to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Washington talks to Beijing through multiple channels, though both countries are locked in a contest for power and influence in the region.
Tokyo does too, though Beijing regularly sends its ships inside the territorial waters of Japanese-controlled islands near Taiwan.
New Delhi has a dialogue with Beijing as well, though both countries’ militaries clashed in their disputed borderlands two years ago.
The question for Australia, then, is how to talk to China, not whether to talk to China.
The new government will carry much of the old government’s scars into any dialogue, for good reason.
As Anthony Albanese said in his first comments on bilateral ties, Australia cannot have normal relations with China until Beijing’s trade sanctions are dropped.
Similarly, the Albanese government will continue to join like-minded partner countries in criticising Beijing on issues such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Beijing wants these public statements to stop, but they won’t.
It isn’t just for these reasons that there is no reset to be had in bilateral relations. That would require a reset in global and regional politics too, something which is not on the horizon.
The dueling diplomacy in the Pacific which has dominated the opening days of Labor in power is evidence enough for anyone who still thought that strategic competition is not the name of the game.
Which brings us to the question – what should Australia and China talk about?
Xiao nominates climate change, which could be beneficial to both parties. Australia wants to export green hydrogen. China is desperately trying to find ways to net-zero emissions.
The area where Beijing most seeks engagement, and where Australia has the most leverage, is on trade deals – notably, China’s desire to join the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CTTPP).
Australia is a member and China needs our say-so to join. Nonetheless, there is no need to shout our leverage from the rooftops.
Other members nations are taking China’s application to join seriously, including Japan. A bellicose veto would isolate Canberra within the CPTPP, which is not in our interests.
Australia talking to Beijing about the CPTPP has another value: it might help spark greater interest in Washington in re-joining a pact that it initiated and then dropped once former president Donald Trump started attacking it.
The plethora of end-of-year Asian summits are likely to be held in person this year, which provides an obvious platform for a meeting of leaders.
Getting the diplomatic ducks in line won’t be easy. But as long as Australia doesn’t waver on its core interests, then there is no reason not to try.