16 March 2022
Last week, Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, met with the new Chinese ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian. It was the first high-level contact between the two governments in years. No substantive changes came from this initial encounter – yet, in the often slow and cautious world of diplomacy, the meeting may indicate a page turning on the poor relations between the two countries.
As China’s former ambassador to Hungary and most recently its ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao comes to Australia with over three decades of diplomatic experience. He has also held several senior diplomatic posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs. His appointment as ambassador to Australia indicates that Beijing sees Canberra as a diplomatic post worthy of serious investment.
Unlike some of his colleagues in recent years, Xiao has not adopted an aggressive and undiplomatic style but has remained professional and restrained in his public comments. By appointing him to this role, Beijing may be recognising its combative posture has been unsuccessful in forging the kind of submissive relationship it wants from Canberra. Instead, Beijing could be reverting to the traditional, more sophisticated, art of diplomacy.
This might also better serve Beijing’s interests in the new world created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has strengthened cooperation among Western democracies and renewed their commitment to their values. This show of Western solidarity may be raising concerns in China that its diplomatic belligerence is also likely to be counterproductive.
Working with Indonesia
On Friday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne will co-chair the inaugural Southeast Asia Dialogue of Women Leaders. The forum is a joint initiative of Payne’s with the Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, and is designed to bring together women leaders in politics, business and civil society from throughout the region. The discussions will seek solutions to the disproportionate health, social and economic effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women and girls.
This new dialogue recognises that individual insecurity undermines national security. The pandemic has exposed this by placing considerable stresses not only on individual lives but also on vital state resources. Investing in human security – the freedom from fear, want and indignity – is complementary to traditional investment in hard security, especially for Australia’s relationships with South-East Asia. The region is reluctant to get drawn into great power politics, which can often dominate Australia’s security thinking. Australia needs to engage with South-East Asia on its own merits, not through the lens of strategic competition with China.
More broadly, the dialogue demonstrates the continued habits of cooperation between Australia and Indonesia. It’s a positive sign that the two countries are seeking new initiatives to deepen their relationship, as well as taking leadership of issues of critical importance to South-East Asia. It’s also a strong signal that Australia sees South-East Asia as its own neighbourhood and is willing to invest considerable time and effort in the region.
South Korean president
South Korea has a new president-elect after Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party won a tight contest against Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party. South Korean presidents serve only a single five-year term, therefore incumbent Moon Jae-in, from the Democratic Party, was not up for re-election. Yoon will take office on 10 May.
Yoon’s presidency offers to be distinct from his predecessor – he is seeking to take a tougher position on North Korea, be less deferential to China, become more enthusiastic about Seoul’s security relationship with the United States, and recognise the importance of a more cooperative partnership with Japan.
Like Australia, South Korea has been subject to economic coercion from China, with restrictions placed on South Korean imports and the discouragement of Chinese tourism. Yoon has claimed Beijing’s tactics have been successful. In response, South Korea has halted the further deployment of the US-manufactured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. THAAD was designed to defend against North Korean missiles, but China views it as having the potential to limit the effectiveness of its own nuclear deterrent. Yoon has stated that giving in to Chinese demands undermined South Korea’s right to protect its people.
For Australia, the hope is that Yoon continues to enhance the two countries’ trading and security relationship. During President Moon’s visit to Australia in December 2021, the two countries signed a billion-dollar agreement for Australia to purchase long-range artillery and fifteen armoured vehicles from defence manufacturer Hanwha. Furthermore, South Korea is Australia’s fourth-largest trading partner, and Seoul is looking to Australia to diversify its sources of the critical minerals used in high-end manufacturing away from China.