Dialogue with China’s Premier Li was a missed opportunity
19 Jun 2024|

Dialogue has many meanings and purposes. But substantial dialogue in the true Socratic sense isn’t just having a conversation or swapping views. Rather, it aims to reveal the truth and to change the other person’s mind.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese leant heavily on the value of dialogue during Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit this week, mentioning it seven times in his solo press conference after talks in Canberra. Sure, it’s hard to argue with dialogue—communicating is better than not communicating.

But what’s happened this week looks awfully like dialogue without depth and without real purpose. Indeed it cannot be the case, as Albanese said, that ‘dialogue is at the core of the bilateral relationship’. The core for Australia must be our security and sovereignty. And we should use mechanisms such as dialogue to resolve differences and achieve outcomes in our favour, not just for the sake of talking.

These talks can’t be treated as just a chance for both sides to air their differences. We should not simply agree to disagree; we should express, both privately and publicly, our dissatisfaction with Beijing’s positions, state our own, and explain why the gap matters.

Speaking frankly in this way should have the goal of influencing China’s behaviour. That’s a tough ask when we’re dealing with an insecurely stubborn autocracy and major power, but we can aim to show Beijing that its coercion will not pay off, that we will work with our democratic friends to achieve a strength-in-numbers, and will impose a reputational cost by calling out malign behaviour.

Otherwise, we encourage more malign activity.

The position in which Australia now finds itself is a logical outcome of the demure principle of ‘cooperating where we can and disagreeing where we must’, in that we are looking to amplify the limited areas of cooperation while downplaying the disagreements.

Whatever was said behind closed doors—and the government has said that disagreements were discussed—is not enough on its own. Australian leaders must be clear and frank in public as well, to ensure the right messages are received both by China and by the Australian people.

Publicly, Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the barest minimum necessary on the points of difference with China—deep and structural though they are. In doing so, they missed any opportunity to state, emphatically, what our positions are, and how China stands in contradiction to them. 

For example, we know that detained Australian Yang Hengjun was discussed but were not told that such arbitrary detention is against international norms, nor that, unless he was immediately released, the bilateral relationship simply couldn’t be stable. Privately, Premier Li should have been told that if this issue was not resolved soon or if Yang were to die while detained in China, he and President Xi Jinping would be considered responsible. And the public message should have been that Magnitsky sanctions would be used against senior Chinese officials across the judiciary, law enforcement and politics.

China loves to keep talk of differences to internal discussions because, as a country with few genuine international friendships, its government bristles at the reputational cost of being called out for its bad behaviour and it knows that, as soon as a smaller country self-censors, the relationship is in Beijing’s control. 

Consequently, although the government says no compromises are being made to Australian values, we are in fact doing Beijing a favour by minimising the differences in public. This clearly meets the definition of a compromise.

Combined with the stabilisation rhetoric, crediting the meetings with giving both sides the opportunity to express their different views is actually legitimising China’s wholly unacceptable actions—after all, these issues are not mere differences of opinion but breaches of international rules and agreements that China has signed onto.

Speaking firmly and publicly also brings the country along with our leaders in understanding the differences with China and the risks that the relationship poses. As much as policymakers talk about the need for a ‘social licence’ for increased defence and security spending, we are doing little to build that licence.

In such a vacuum, panda diplomacy gains attention out of all proportion to its importance. Everyone loves pandas, but the fact that Beijing is prepared to loan or remove them as a point of leverage shows that they are another tool for China to achieve its strategic objectives.

The danger of equalising the perspectives held by Australia and China is amplified by the government implying that stabilisation was required because of Australia’s mistakes, not China’s aggression. 

Albanese referred to China’s coercive communications freeze as ‘the breakdown where you had not a single phone call from an Australian minister’—as if Beijing was waiting for a call.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong implied that ‘we are now in a state of permanent contest in the Pacific” because ‘Mr Dutton and his colleagues’ abandoned the field in the Pacific—when the primary driver is Beijing’s expansionist agenda.

And Trade Minister Don Farrell said the visit by Premier Li ‘will result in a very successful outcome for lobster producers’—giving Beijing a free pass by ignoring the injustice of the coercive trade measures, which should never have happened in the first place.

This combination of legitimising China’s views and blaming Australia risks undoing the public trust in all the security decisions made in the last decade—including banning Huawei from the 5G network, introducing foreign interference laws and taking a leading stand against China’s aggression in the South China Sea through then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s strong support for the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling in favour of the Philippines.

For a while, after those decisions, Australia was left hanging like a shag on a South China Sea rock by many of its democratic partners but, since then, the world has done a collective 180 degree turn to compete with China as a systemic and pacing threat—across AUKUS, the Quad, Five Eyes, G7, the European Union, NATO and beyond. The Ukraine Peace Summit saw China called out for supporting Russia’s war effort, while last week’s G7 statement directly affirmed the Philippines and the 2016 Tribunal ruling, and opposed ‘China’s militarization, and coercive and intimidation activities’.

Right at the moment when the democratic peloton has caught up to a once breakaway Australia, our policy of quiet diplomacy can’t afford to turn into a hide-and-slide, in which we speak less, do less and return to an era of security compromise.