China’s approach to Australia has shifted in the past six months. A year ago, the commentary in state-run Chinese media and from senior officials was distinctly hostile. The mood now is one of cool indifference.
Scott Morrison’s talks with Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan in Jakarta last weekend was a positive sign, but Beijing made it clear that Australia had requested the meeting. The diplomatic exchange only rated a single sentence at the bottom of a story on Indonesian relations in the People’s Daily on October 22.
Morrison has not yet been invited to visit China and those in government are finding it increasingly difficult to gain direct access to anyone senior enough in the Communist Party leadership for a frank exchange.
That is not to say the door is closed. There has been a steady procession of business leaders, state government politicians and university chancellors to Beijing over the last month. Next week, China holds its annual import exposition in Shanghai, which will be attended by hundreds of Australian companies, including Coles, Bellamy’s and Australia Post.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham led the delegation last year and it would be surprising if he did not make a repeat appearance.
For Australia’s part, there has been a renewed push to mend ties under the Morrison government despite growing concerns about Chinese foreign interference.
Australia has a new ambassador to China and a $44 million foundation headed by former Howard government minister Warwick Smith which is building business and cultural links between the two countries. But at a speech in the US last month, Mr Morrison did, however, raise a few hackles by suggesting China had outgrown its “developing economy” classification.
Indeed, most Australians on the ground in China privately agree relations will never return to where they were three years ago. This was reinforced by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson, who told Senate Estimates last week that differences between Beijing and Canberra over values are the “new normal”.
Morrison, who has had mixed success juggling the security concerns and economic upside that come with dealing with China, last week defended Australia’s western democratic traditions, saying the country would not be corralled into either the pro-US or pro-China camp.
Australia is not alone in its struggle to deal with this increasingly nationalistic and aggressive superpower. China’s economic and military might means there is little incentive for officials working under President Xi Jinping to play nice with the rest of the world.
This is reflected in the aggressive tone adopted by Chinese diplomats around the world. When Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton spoke about Communist Party values in a speech earlier this month, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra fired off a statement within hours calling his remarks “malicious”.
This kind of direct response from a Chinese embassy would have been unusual a year ago. Now it is commonplace.
One western diplomat, who is not Australian, says frank exchanges with Chinese officials are rare. Most rattle off talking points approved by Beijing rather than inviting any kind of meaningful dialogue.
Another challenge for the Morrison government is the perception in Beijing that Australian politicians are doing Washington’s bidding when it comes to China. If Canberra raises human rights abuses in Xinjiang or concerns about the Hong Kong government invoking colonial-era emergency powers, Chinese officials accuse the government of pandering to Washington.
This assertion is frustrating for those working to improve ties, because it is often not true. Australia may be less powerful than the United States, but it is grown up enough to have its own independent views on China’s affairs. Canberra cannot afford to be as aggressive with China as Washington, but it also has the right – some would argue an obligation – to raise human rights issues.
Despite their importance, Hong Kong and Xinjiang are almost side issues for Canberra. The real test in the relationship will come from matters which directly threaten Australia’s sovereignty or security in the region. This includes Huawei’s access to 5G networks, academic interference, disputes in the South China Sea or China-built military bases in Australia’s backyard.
Through all this, Australia’s commercial relationship with China remains strong. Australian executives on the ground say it is largely business as usual, although they are increasingly nervous about sudden changes in regulation, stricter visa requirements and the nationalistic backlash against companies perceived as supporting the Hong Kong protesters or Taiwan’s independence.
Demand for Australia’s iron ore and gas remains robust and is likely to remain that way for some time. But analysts in China say restrictions on Australian coal remain in place, and securing new licences to import agricultural products such as dairy and beef is troublesome.
So what can the government do to mend ties? Penny Wong says the prime minister is putting populism ahead of foreign policy, while former ambassador Geoff Raby says Canberra should take a leaf out Victoria’s book and sign up to Xi’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
Others believe Australia needs to wean itself off its economic dependence on China. The other sensible tactic is to keep the dialogue open with China on as many levels as possible which is what is what many in government are trying to do.
Foreign policy will be on the agenda when China’s leaders meet behind closed doors this week for what is called a plenum. But despite the US trade war and growing international pressure on human rights issues, there are no signs of a softening in the way Beijing deals with Australia or anyone else.