Xi–Albanese meeting shows strength of Australia’s resolve
18 Nov 2022|

It is tempting to express a bit of triumphalist satisfaction at Chinese President Xi Jinping’s acquiescence in meeting with an Australian prime minister after six years of stubborn rejection. And it must be said, a few commentators couldn’t help seeing the meeting as the bell tolling on Beijing’s attempt to grind Australia into submission.

True, China has blinked. But the bell was simply the end of the first round. We have survived it, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves; while Beijing might shift tactics, it has not changed its objectives.

The Chinese Communist Party wants a region and ultimately a world in which it is the dominant geopolitical force; in which it sits at the centre of global economic activity; in which it remains inoculated from the contagious appeal of democracy and liberalism; and in which it can project sufficient military, economic and diplomatic power to coerce neighbours if necessary to get its way.

There is absolutely no sign that the CCP has reined in these ambitions—certainly not in Xi’s decision to meet with Albanese.

What we can celebrate is the fact that, by refusing to compromise on any area of Australia’s national interest, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was able to go into the meeting with his counterpart in a position of strength. Beijing has effectively accepted that its coercion of Australia has, so far, been unsuccessful. That is a significant achievement, not just for us but for all countries that were watching to see how far Beijing would go to bend another country to its will.

By underestimating Australia’s resilience, Beijing has shown itself to be a bully, but not an altogether effective one—a mistake it also made with Lithuania. Australia can now continue its steady, consistent course of making sovereign decisions without second-guessing itself. Any cleavage of the diplomatic relationship will have to come at Beijing’s initiative—and it would need a very powerful justification for doing so.

Meanwhile, Canberra ought to cooperate with Beijing where it can, even while we pursue fundamentally incompatible goals with respect to the shape of the international and regional order. The disciplined approach of Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles—which can be summed up as ‘cooperate if possible but counter where necessary’—reflects this truism.

Beijing’s readout put its own spin on the situation by welcoming ‘the will Australia has recently demonstrated to improve and grow its relations with China’—even though Australia’s standing position for the past six years has been a preparedness to talk with China at all levels without preconditions. To Albanese’s credit, he maintained that position with a dignified posture.

While the change of government in Australia has provided Beijing with an opportunity to re-engage, the Albanese government is demonstrating that bipartisanship is an indispensable strength in taking on a major power. In correctly identifying that Beijing’s responses to Australian policy decisions were wholly disproportionate and were breaches of international rules, the government has signalled it will not give an inch on security, foreign and defence policy, even as it maintains a calibrated and measured tone in dialogue.

Importantly, Albanese is showing both China and the Australian people that tensions can be managed, not ignored.

The prime minister said after the meeting that the two countries were taking ‘an important step to moving forward’, adding that there are of course many further steps needed.

What does moving forward involve? It is emphatically not a return to the callow attitude in which we believed we could keep business separate from international politics; nor is it relying on time-wasting platitudes such as that we ‘don’t have to choose’, or being deceived by feints such as ‘win–win cooperation’ and other favourite strategic phrases of Beijing’s.

China’s readout of the meeting noted that the two countries needed to learn from recent experience and look to ‘steer the relationship back on to the right track’.

The right track for Beijing is a perspective about which the Albanese government will need to remain extremely disciplined. Beijing is not capitulating but doing what it does better than most—treating this as a 12-round bout and assuming the other side lacks stamina. As dialogue increases, Beijing will aim, over time, to weaken Australia’s resolve on issues ranging from negotiations on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, to investments in critical infrastructure and technologies, to human rights and regional security.

An easy litmus test is the coercive trade measures Beijing has imposed over the past two years. Diplomatic gestures on Beijing’s part lack credibility while those measures remain in place, and the Albanese government will need to watch carefully for any attempt by Beijing to move forward with those as part of a new baseline. Beijing will expect to receive a quid pro quo for ending its coercion – but Australia should not reward Beijing for simply ceasing to punch us in the face.

Similarly, all Australians hope that detained citizens like Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei will be released and that the sentences for those on death row will be commuted. Such actions from Beijing would help stabilise relations and reduce some bilateral tension, but they should not elicit any compromise or praise on Australia’s part because they are simply the right thing to do.

There’s a long way to go in this period of strategic competition in which Australia is unavoidably a participant, not as an ally of the United States or a member of any particular international grouping but simply as a sovereign, democratic nation that wants to live in an open region not dominated by any one country, particularly an authoritarian superpower.

We have come through the first round well. Without hubris, we can take a moment to appreciate that before resuming our clear-eyed focus on what lies ahead.