During 90 minutes of statecraft that was candid enough to be deeply chilling, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, crystallised the central question in Australia-China relations.
Xi’s Australian representative – who was fluent, erudite, composed and periodically sardonic in response to preamble-heavy questioning at the National Press Club on Wednesday – floated a detente. How about more trade and less trash talk?
Xiao’s pitch was simple. Can we just return to the days when Australia and China engaged in lucrative and mutually agreeable exporting and importing – while muting our irreconcilable conflicts of values?
The ambassador had a preferred locution for this regime-sanctioned utopia. Resetting the relationship between Beijing and Canberra was about “creating favourable atmosphere”.
Favourable atmosphere was apparently the precondition for everything: the removal of current trade barriers, a potential face-to-face meeting between Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping at the G20 in Bali and visibility over the treatment of any Australians arbitrarily detained in China. He said the past five decades had demonstrated Australia and China could be “partners” despite having differences in political systems.
Such a generous offer could only be accompanied by rules, however.
Rule number one was China and Australia must keep their quarrels in-house. The ambassador unfurled an analogy about a marriage to illustrate his point. It was one thing for a husband and wife to quarrel at home, but “it’s something else if they fight down in the street – it’s going to change the nature of the marriage”. What was required was a “proper modality to handle the differences between our two great nations” so that differences didn’t “hijack our cooperation”.
Rule number two was Australia could be friends with the US if we absolutely must, but picking sides would be a dangerous business, particularly on the issues fundamental to China’s nationalistic and hegemonic identity.
The sharp end of this was there could be no sucking up to the US on Taiwan. None whatsoever. Xiao’s tone on Wednesday veered between overt belligerence and wounded pride.
The bottom line is Australia has washed up in strange, dangerous, deeply disconcerting times
The ambassador noted US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had engaged in a public provocation by going to Taipei, in the process violating “the one China principle”.
Australia had then committed an offence against the relationship by issuing a joint statement of rebuke with the US and Japan after China conducted live-fire exercises and other drills in the seas around Taiwan for almost a week. Xiao said China could compromise on economic issues, trade issues, “other” issues – but “there’s absolutely no room for us to compromise on the question of Taiwan”.
So there were China’s three rules of rapprochement, unfurled in broad daylight in Australia’s bush capital. Don’t squabble outdoors, don’t pick sides and don’t humiliate us by failing to respect our red lines.
Emergent super power to middle power: it’s our way or the highway.
That was all bad enough, but it got worse. Xi’s Australia representative really preferred that people didn’t use the word “invasion” when speaking about China’s intentions for reunification with Taiwan – even though it was very clear that fusion was inevitable and would occur by all necessary means. (Those inclined to parse all necessary means were invited to “use your imagination”.)
The ambassador believed it was entirely legitimate for China to pepper the seas surrounding Taiwan with ballistic missiles, even if that heightened the risk of miscalculation or catastrophic misadventure.
There was also the probable re-education of Taiwan’s population that would follow any invasion that dare not speak its name. Xiao again: “I think my personal understanding is that once Taiwan is reunited, coming back to the motherland, there might be a process for the people in Taiwan to have a correct understanding of China about the motherland.” Despicable. Unconscionable.
Since winning the election in May, the Albanese government has been attempting to explore the limited space for rapprochement that exists between the irreconcilable differences in the Australia-China relationship.
The opportunity to push past Beijing’s trade barriers would be handy insurance for Australia against the post-pandemic headwinds buffeting the global economy.
In the context of that tentative exploration, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has been very obviously irritated about the unnecessary provocation of the recent Pelosi visit to Taipei. While Wong’s irritation has been expressed in polite diplomatic boilerplate, it has been evident for several days. The foreign minister’s line has been strategic competitors (and, for context, there are two of them) need to lower the temperature and restore calm in the region.
Understanding the difficult diplomatic rip Wong was attempting to swim across both internationally and domestically, Peter Dutton – adjunct professor of nuance, the peacenik from central casting – then thought he’d “help” by publicly backing the Pelosi visit. That assistance contributed nothing apart from sharpening Xiao’s self-serving rules articulation on Wednesday.
The bottom line is Australia has washed up in strange, dangerous, deeply disconcerting times.
The new Labor government is attempting a diplomatic reset with Beijing – a necessary if very likely futile gesture – even though Australia has already chosen a side and China knows it.
Australia is attempting to reopen dialogue with the regime in Beijing while being fully intent on constraining China’s escalating desire to control the region, a strategy that overlaps with Washington, but is also an articulation of our own values-based foreign policy.
Pulling the Pacific close, while courting neighbours like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, has been an early Albanese government priority, necessitating a full court press. Beijing knows that.
So Wednesday was the sound of China laying out terms that Australia has already declined.