Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s proposed trip to China is the subject of open debate within the Australian government, as speculation builds that his visit will be delayed to next year.
In a further sign that relations between Beijing and Canberra are thawing, Treasurer Jim Chalmers held in-person talks with his counterpart, Liu Kun, on the sidelines of the G20 meeting of finance ministers in India this month.
China’s olive branch is a long way from when Australia was in the diplomatic freezer, when Beijing imposed more than $20 billion of trade strikes on Australia in response to a number of decisions made by the former Coalition government, including banning telco Huawei and pushing for an international inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Beijing’s slow progress on removing all of the economic sanctions, the continued detention of Australian citizens Yang Hengjun and journalist Cheng Lei and the bounties against exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, including two living in Australia, have complicated Labor’s plans.
Although it is tempting for Albanese to visit China 50 years after Labor’s Gough Whitlam’s opened up relations between the two countries during his historic visit, the timing may not be right and the government is considering whether to delay the trip to next year.
After Beijing shut down all contact at the ministerial and leader level between 2020 and 2022, Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles displayed deft diplomacy in their opening months of government by managing to speak with their Chinese counterparts without giving away anything.
But the government is now grappling with the more difficult task of using the dialogue to achieve something.
Bates Gill, executive director of the US-based Asia Society Policy Institute’s Centre for China Analysis, says a well-negotiated visit by Albanese was a good idea, but it should be undertaken with a number of understandings.
These include conditions that lead to the release of Cheng and Yang, the lifting of remaining trade sanctions on Australian exports, and an understanding that the prime minister will be “be respectful, but firm about Australia’s concerns with China’s human rights record”.
“Unfortunately, and wrongfully, the Chinese side may wish to bargain for the release of the detained Australian citizens in return for Australia sending the Hong Kong activists back to China,” Gill told this masthead.
“That would be unacceptable and will complicate the release of the Australian detainees.”
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Justin Bassi said dialogue in itself was not foreign policy, “but one tactic within a broader strategy and one that Beijing plays ruthlessly well”.
The former senior intelligence official and national security adviser to Malcolm Turnbull said Beijing withholds dialogue to coerce other nations into doing what it wants.
Bassi said Albanese should use the opportunity of a visit to “directly advocate for Australia’s interests”, but avoid a transactional approach by linking the trip to one Australian being released over another.
“Instead, the government should reinforce a foreign policy based on principles which deter or respond to all bad behaviour consistently, not one that incentivises some bad behaviour,” Bassi said.
“The message to Beijing cannot ever be that a little bit of economic coercion, foreign interference or hostage diplomacy is OK.”
Human Rights Watch’s Australia director, Daniela Gavshon, said any visit by Albanese should be accompanied by “concrete actions” denouncing human rights violations, including targeted sanctions against Chinese officials.
“Clearly expressing concern isn’t enough. At this point, targeted sanctions and clear, strong messaging in the lead up and during any visit is essential,” Gavshon said.
It is an open question as to how much Australia can gain from a more positive relationship with China at the political level.
Dirk Van Der Kley, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s School of Regulation and Global Governance, said COVID-19 was the biggest blockage for cultural and in-person relationships, not that between the two governments.
“The economic relationship is already so deep. There is not much room for more,” he said.
Van Der Kley said Beijing’s top economic priority was ensuring Australia continued to supply critical minerals, in particular lithium and iron ore.
He said there were three problems with China’s trade sanctions: they didn’t cause much economic pain, they did not achieve the country’s political goals, and they contributed to an international environment which was much more wary of China – at least among rich democracies.
In some ways, being shut off from Beijing was easier than the current predicament.
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