Op-Ed: Transparency essential in China engagement

Pictures of a smiling Xi Jinping shaking hands with Prime Minister Albanese last week have invited plenty of talk about a ‘thawing relationship’ and positive signs for Australian and Chinese cooperation. But it’s important to see last week’s meeting for what it is – a change of tactics by Xi and his administration.

For several years, Australia has been the target of belligerent tactics in a transparent attempt to coerce Australia into changing core policy positions and to bully us into shutting up on topics that the Chinese Government don’t want aired. Blocking Australian goods like wine, barley and lobster from entering China, and refusing to meet with Australian officials, have been central to these coercive tactics. Xi has most likely decided to change these tactics because, in the main, they haven’t worked.

Australia has maintained – on a bipartisan basis – a firm refusal to give into Chinese demands on a wide range of issues, including all of those listed in the Chinese Embassy’s infamous ’14 grievances’ list. Far from encouraging either the former or current government to budge on these demands, the trade embargoes and ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy had prompted Australian society to finally adopt a clear-eyed, realistic view on China’s behaviour and intentions.

In recent years Australia has passed strong foreign interference laws to counter the known risk of attempts by the Chinese Communist Party (and others) to influence our democratic institutions. We had woken up to the need to avoid economic over-reliance on China. The Australian Government is currently undertaking a major review of our defence posture and capabilities, and it’s no secret where our biggest threat comes from. Far from coercing Australia into being more compliant, China’s refusal to conduct normal diplomatic meetings and attempts to punish Australia via trade sanctions added to our determination to confront the new reality of China.

Xi’s meetings with world leaders in recent weeks suggest a realisation on the Chinese Government’s side that dangling trade and investment opportunities as a carrot to western democracies had been a much more successful tactic than the coercive diplomacy and trade embargoes of recent years. Positive perceptions of the Chinese Government fell off a cliff in the period of wolf warrior rhetoric and refusal to meet with Australian officials. In 2018, a Lowy Institute poll found that 43 per cent of Australian’s trusted Xi to act responsibly regarding world affairs. The same poll conducted earlier this year found only 11 per cent now feel that way.

Meetings between leaders are a positive, normal part of international diplomacy, which we all welcome. But the reality of our strategic situation and the intentions of the Chinese Government to dominate the Asia-Pacific must not be obscured by polite diplomatic-speak about trade opportunities and “meeting each other halfway”. Halfway from what?

Just days after his meeting with President Xi, the PM disparaged Taiwan’s efforts to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, incorrectly claiming that entry into the trade agreement was only for “recognised” nation-states. The Albanese Government is also yet to implement any sanctions in response to the UN Human Rights report which found large-scale human rights abuses against the Uighur population in Xinjiang.

Xi and his regime backs Putin’s Russia through a “no-limits partnership” announced on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. It has been found to have committed serious, large-scale human rights abuses. It continues to warn that it fully intends to take control of Taiwan, by force if necessary. Australia must be able to discuss these matters openly, and our leaders have to be part of that discussion. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates what can happen when aggressive behaviour and human rights abuses are brushed aside to pursue a trade relationship.