‘Stabilisation’ is helping Beijing stall for time
28 Jun 2024|

The recent visit by Premier Li Qiang was characteristic of what is becoming a clear trend in Chinese leaders’ travel, akin to the proverbial arsonist-cum-firefighter, who causes a problem they can then heroically fix.

Li gave Australia plenty of opportunities to thank him in person for fixing the issues that China has created, from coercive trade measures to the removal and return of giant pandas from our zoos.

These are certainly areas ‘where we can co-operate’—to borrow from the Australian government’s language. Indeed, they are often areas in which we already were co-operating until Beijing decided to demonstrate its displeasure.

And the fact of the diplomatic push by Beijing points to an emerging agenda on Beijing’s part: what some in the West have labelled ‘stabilisation’ is really more like stalling for time. This gives Beijing more breathing space to make sense of the new post-pandemic world and assess the implications it will have for its own global ambitions.

Beijing likely knows it needs time to stabilise its own position and power. To do this, it appears to be seeking to improve the image of its international relationships, particularly with countries in the West.

The wolf warriors have gotten quieter as China’s diplomats are seeking out any area of cooperation with their foreign counterparts. Huge efforts have been made to show there can be ‘mutually beneficial and win-win results’ from dealing with China on its terms, where Beijing makes few meaningful concessions on areas of serious disagreement.

Li Qiang’s visits to Australia and New Zealand are a prime example of this pattern of behaviour. It generated much publicity over the smaller areas where there is opportunity for cooperation: visa-free travel to China, and a series of MOUs on climate, trade and research. But the more substantive areas of geopolitics, on which there is legitimate and important disagreement, were relegated largely to private conversations.

This pattern is also present in Xi Jinping’s recent visits abroad. Last November’s summit between presidents Biden and Xi resulted in an agreement for the resumption of the talks Beijing had walked out of after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The return of giant pandas to Washington National Zoo also featured.

In May, France’s President Emmanuel Macron managed to get a joint statement on the Middle East condemning ‘all forms of terrorism’. However, at least publicly, little progress was made on the much more pressing issue of Beijing’s enabling of Russia’s on-going war in Ukraine.

China’s leaders are likely also waiting to see how for elections in several countries unfold over the course of 2024, including the US presidency.

Who will be the American president for the next four years is a variable Beijing must factor into its foreign policy ambition of displacing the United States as the world’s preeminent global power. Why waste valuable time and resources now when a US president less interested in America’s role in the world might be just around the corner?

From Beijing’s perspective, it is better not to waste precious energy on adversarial relationships everywhere, and rather to focus on not taking a single step back on the core interests. Australia is just not as important as the Philippines or Taiwan right now.

And beyond the uncertainty China faces abroad, it also faces problems on the home front.

There’s growing pressure on China’s leadership because the country’s reemergence via three years of pandemic isolation has not been smooth sailing. Its economy is much weaker than it had expected, and segments of Chinese society are more jaded about whether Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ is going to deliver on its promise of national rejuvenation by mid-century. Add to this the seemingly chaotic international environment and Beijing is almost certainly aware of ‘the high winds and choppy waters’ it now faces in the world.

But China is a master of scale. It can keep other countries bogged down by an army of diplomats on the small issues on which co-operation is possible. This includes tying up Australia in the minutiae of trade exports restrictions for years. All the while, the bigger areas of disagreement just seem too daunting.

If anything, the Li visit shows that Beijing is content for the time being with a relationship with countries like Australia that is more about great photo opportunities, and less about reaching substantive agreement on the harder issues.

There is little evidence that prioritising engagement for engagement’s sake is getting us closer on the big issues ‘where we must disagree’—the other half of the Australian government’s diplomatic formulation. This goes for coercion of Taiwan, aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, and support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Arguably these areas are getting worse as so-called stabilisation gets better.

Australia has been dealing with Beijing since the 1970s, and with Xi Jinping as its leader since 2012. The time for official visits as primarily about rapport-building should be over.

Fewer visits and MOUs would give our diplomats more time to work on the areas where we must disagree with China—not to mention providing fewer things for Beijing to set fire to in future.