Australia and China eye new ways to heal old wounds

Albanese and Xi meet on the side-lines of the G20
Image caption,Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping meeting at the G20 in September

By Hannah Ritchie

BBC News, Sydney

When Prime Minister Anthony Albanese touches down in Shanghai on Saturday, he will be the first Australian leader to visit China in seven years.

It ends a hiatus triggered by a string of prickly disputes, including various Chinese sanctions on Australian goods, and back and forth accusations of foreign interference.

Now both sides have renewed ambitions and have cleared the way for the visit with a series of gestures, experts say.

Last month China announced the surprise release of Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was detained for over three years on national security charges. It has also said it will review its tariffs on Australian exports.

On its side, Australia has suspended action it had taken against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and greenlit the Chinese lease of a critical port in Darwin.

But the “structural issues plaguing the relationship” haven’t changed, analysts say, as both countries vie for influence in the Pacific Islands region, and Australia updates its defence posture to counter China’s military build-up.

And there is “some gap” between what each side sees as the next steps, they argue.

Chinese officials have expressed a will to advance the relationship by adding “more meat to the bone”, says Elena Collinson from the Australia-China Institute.

“For Australia, though, this represents the pinnacle of stabilisation, and it’s near as good as Canberra wants the relationship to get at this point,” she adds.

‘Poking Beijing in the eye’

Mr Albanese’s visit marks 50 years since former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam travelled to Beijing, following the establishment of diplomatic ties.

From its inception the relationship has been based, as Mr Whitlam put it, on “mutual benefit”.

Gough Whitlam and Stephen Fitzgerald meet Chairman Mao Zedong
Image caption,Gough Whitlam (background) and an Australian official meet Mao Zedong (left) in 1973

China’s transformation into an economic superpower created huge demand for Australian exports like iron ore, coal and gas.

And that helped Australia weather global recessions, while underpinning decades of uninterrupted growth.

It also led to strong cross-cultural exchanges – with 5.5% of Australia’s population today having Chinese ancestry.

Cracks appeared in 2018, when Australia’s former government banned Chinese firm Huawei from rolling out the country’s 5G network, citing “security concerns”.

“That could be described as the first shot,” China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian said last year.

Australia criticised Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong protesters, and led calls for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, triggering a period of what then leader Scott Morrison termed “economic coercion” by Beijing.

At the time, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “We will not allow any country to reap benefits from doing business with China while groundlessly accusing and smearing us.”

The culmination of those years was Australia’s landmark decision to join the Aukus security pact – widely seen as a long-term commitment to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.

But when Mr Albanese came to power in 2022, both Australia and China saw an urgent need for a thaw in relations, analysts say.

Since then, Australia has swapped “poking Beijing in the eye and kicking it in the shins because it feels good” with a stated policy of “stabilisation”, University of Sydney historian James Curran says.

But with polls showing most Australians still view China as an emerging military threat, Prof Curran says Mr Albanese will be “worried about doing anything that smacks of weakness”.

‘Guardrails’ and sticking points

Mr Albanese’s trip to Beijing comes hot on the heels of his US state visit.

And when he sits down with Chinese President Xi Jinping, “the Americans will be watching for any signs that could point to a softening Australian stance on China, a concern that has started to take hold again in Washington”, Ms Collinson says.

“Trust but verify” was US President Joe Biden’s parting advice when asked whether Australia could continue to “do business” with Beijing in the current security climate.

Biden and Albanese at the White House
Image caption,Mr Albanese met US president Joe Biden last week

But Mr Albanese has tried to position his meeting with President Xi as a chance to “build in guardrails” and help to avoid a miscalculation between two massive militaries.

“It is in Australia’s interest, as well as China – but, I believe, in the global interest – for us to have a relationship where there is dialogue,” he said at the White House last week. “Through dialogue comes understanding and a defusion of tension.”

But as talks resume, a significant list of sticking points remain.

Australian writer Yang Hengjun – whose health is said to be rapidly deteriorating – has been imprisoned in China on espionage charges since 2019, and his supporters want Mr Albanese to secure his release.

“It’s morally indefensible to normalise ties when the Chinese government is holding an Australian citizen as a political hostage,” his friend Chongyi Feng told the BBC.

Then there are ongoing debates about influence in the Pacific Islands region, where Australia has long tried to play a leadership role. A recent Chinese security pact with the Solomon Islands prompted panic in Canberra.

On China’s side, a landmark overhaul of Australia’s defence posture – which resulted in a commitment to buy long-range missiles – hasn’t gone unnoticed either.

Nor has the deepening of US-Australia military ties, as Beijing continues to assert its claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

But the “mutual benefit” need that Mr Whitlam articulated in 1973 hasn’t changed. Which leaves Australia walking a familiar diplomatic tightrope.

“China still broadly underwrites Australia’s prosperity and that’s only strengthening,” Prof Curran says.

“But our position will continue to be heavily influenced by the US… so there’s minimal movement for Australia beyond a China relationship based on economic self-interest.”

And Australia will “remain guarded” while Beijing looks for ways to expand the relationship over the next 50 years, he adds.

What Canberra will try to avoid, for now at least, is another period of silence.

If the trip goes well, all remaining trade barriers could be removed – but beyond that, Ms Collinson isn’t expecting any “major announceables”.

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