7 November 2018
Before December 2017, a visit by an Australian foreign minister to China was not usually a headline-grabbing event. But Marise Payne’s trip to Beijing today has attained symbolic status, capping off a so-called “thaw” in recent relations between the two countries.
Payne’s two-day visit follows Simon Birmingham’s trip to China on Sunday as trade minister – the first visit by an Australian minister in a year. It is a strange diplomatic phenomenon: last year, Australia conducted $183 billion worth of trade with China – more than double that with Japan, its second-largest partner – and received over a million Chinese tourists (more than from any other country), yet Australian ministers have been unable to obtain visas to China.
So the thaw is welcome, but it also demonstrates the difficulties – and potential costs – that Australia faces as it navigates ties with China.
China’s Communist Party has repeatedly shown that it will punish nations whose conduct offends its values and interests. In 2010, it blocked salmon exports from Norway after the jailed activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2016, it barred coal imports from Mongolia after a visit by the Dalai Lama. Last year, it boycotted South Korean firms and suspended Chinese tour groups after Seoul allowed Washington to deploy a missile defence system. This year, it limited tourism to Taiwan amid tensions over the island’s status.
The punishment of Australia appears to have been in response to Canberra’s efforts late last year to curb foreign interference. As well as refusing visas to ministers, China delayed wine imports and issued at least two warnings about the safety of Chinese students in Australia.
Now, Payne is off to meet her Chinese counterpart, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been trying to signal that all is well. “I think it shows that things are very much on track,” he said on Tuesday.
But Canberra is on notice. Although the thaw may be part of Beijing’s endeavours to shore up partners in the face of Donald Trump’s tariffs and threats, the freeze could be reimposed at any time.
Any serious moves by Beijing, such as limitations on trade or flows of Chinese tourists or students, would hurt China but could prove devastating for Australia. China accounted for 24 per cent of Australian trade last year. Australia accounted for about 3 per cent of Chinese trade.
For Australia, the challenge is to prevent further paybacks from Beijing despite entrenched differences, which range from disagreements over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea to its record on human rights and treatment of minorities.
Australia should not blithely ignore China’s concerns, or its threats. As long as Australia’s values and interests are preserved, the government should do all it can to avoid inflaming tensions. This requires delicate diplomacy, including being sensitive to Chinese culture and history and the ways in which these have shaped – and been exploited by – the Chinese Communist Party. Such history includes China’s “century of humiliation”, an era of suffering at the hands of Western and Japanese powers from the 1840s until 1949, when Mao Zedong supposedly announced that China had “stood up”.
Last December, Malcolm Turnbull famously referenced this claim when he introduced Australia’s foreign interference legislation, saying in Mandarin that “the Australian people stand up”. Chinese officials were shocked and insulted. Shortly after, the freeze deepened.
The incident demonstrates the difference between defending interests and exercising diplomacy. Turnbull’s foreign interference legislation was warranted and necessary, but the slight was not.
At times, bridging this divide will be impossible. Australia’s interests are largely immovable. Its continued growth and prosperity will depend, perhaps more than ever, on shrewd diplomacy that simultaneously advances Australia’s position while trying to contain the fallout.