As Xi Jinping begins a third term, Australia must push to engage China on common interests
An overconfident Beijing and a Xi surrounded by yes-men poses a great risk to Pacific stability, making bilateral meetings all the more important. Originally published in The Guardian.
For Australia, everything can seem China-adjacent. But the reverse is hardly ever true.
It is unlikely Xi Jinping – confirmed as China’s national leader for a historic third term this week – is up to speed with the latest developments in Australia-China relations, and perhaps not even those with the US, despite the number of recent flashpoints in bilateral relations, from Taiwan to US restrictions on technology exports to China.
Xi is the architect of China’s narrative and vision – building a modern socialist nation and advancing its economic rejuvenation. Such ambition and leadership may be popular among Chinese citizens, but independent opinion surveys in China are almost nonexistent.
Xi’s narrative and vision aren’t in and of themselves a problem. Rather, it is his abolition of institutional checks on his power that is the issue. He chairs several leading small groups across many policy areas, and has thus monopolised policymaking. Despite his authoritarianism, he is constrained by two practical factors: firstly, he is not an expert on all policy areas, from welfare to foreign affairs and everything in between. Secondly, he cannot conjure up more than 24 hours in a day, and there are limits to how much time he can devote to any one issue given the demands of the job.
There are significant implications for Xi’s consolidation of power for Australia. First, those who seek to capture his attention, from his diplomats to foreign states, must now vie for it. Considering the “dangerous storms” ahead, Xi and China will face multiple challenges on domestic and international fronts. This means that policy groups and committees spanning the depth and breadth of the party and state will be looking to their leader.
Secondly, information will be channelled upwards, more so than before. Inevitably, members of the leading small groups will have more specialist knowledge than Xi in any number of areas. However, in a political system dominated by one man and his ideology, group members have three potential options for how they present policy information to Xi: 1) mould the information to serve their interests; 2) present it according to Xi’s preferences; or 3) deliver the information with objectivity. Given the fear instilled into party members because of previous anti-corruption campaigns and a favouring of loyalty over merit, the first and second options will be preferred, with the second being politically prudent.
China’s military drills around Taiwan in August suggest there is room for miscalculation. As British Secret Intelligence Service chief, Richard Moore, warned in 2021, an overconfident Beijing can lead to miscalculation over Taiwan: “Beijing believes its own propaganda about western frailties … The risk of Chinese miscalculation through overconfidence is real.” Such missteps would be catastrophic for the Asia-Pacific region.
There is a danger for Xi in accepting the oft-used trope and assumption that Australia subordinates itself to the US. Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, has been careful to highlight that Australia’s foreign policy is driven along the lines of shared interests rather than values, distinct from the US, as reflected in its recent National Security Strategy. Such a misunderstanding may derail the slow progress towards stabilisation of Australia-China relations.
Both sides of Australian politics must continue to advocate for high-level bilateral meetings with their Chinese counterparts. There is speculation over whether Australia’s prime minister will meet Xi at the G20 summit in Bali. Should it materialise, the meeting may prompt Xi to gain the most up-to-date information about bilateral relations, and hear and read briefings from multiple agencies about Australia.
Even if little substance emerges from the meeting – for example, the removal of informal trade sanctions against Australian goods – the contact will direct Xi’s attention to Australia and the region despite the multitude of issues and stakeholders that are competing for his focus, not least the United States.
As the absence of engagement with China continues, tunnel vision and ultra-nationalists in the national security establishment will come to dictate China’s foreign policy, putting Australia in an increasingly uncomfortable position. It is in Australia’s interests to maximise the incremental wins achieved since May and continue to push for high- and low-level meetings.
Xi may be surrounded by yes-men, and that is to China and the world’s detriment. Chinese history is replete with examples of leaders being surrounded by sycophants and subservient officials who were too scared to report the truth. The Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine come to mind. Nonetheless, Australian and international leaders must continue to find areas of common interest and nudge Xi into engaging on these issues to avoid geostrategic miscalculations of grand proportions.