EDITORIAL: China shows its readiness to ignore the rules

The Nightly
The Prime Minister says major talks with the Chinese Premier have been 'constructive.' Their meeting in Canberra today drew both fanfare and anger, with protestors clashing on the lawns outside Parliament

Out with the “wolf-warrior” approach, in with panda diplomacy.

After years in the freezer, the relationship between Australia and China had been “renewed and revitalised”, Anthony Albanese said as he received Premier Li Qiang in Canberra on Monday.

That reception followed a visit at the weekend by Premier Li to South Australia, where he announced China would send Australia a new pair of “beautiful, lovely, adorable” and hopefully fertile pandas to replace Wang Wang and Fu Ni, the frustratingly platonic pair resident at Adelaide Zoo for the past 15 years.

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China has long used its giant pandas as ambassadors. Nations it considers friends get pandas. Those it considers otherwise, do not.

If China is particularly unhappy, it can even recall its pandas, as it did last year with three bears living in US zoos.

So the news that Australia is to receive a replacement pair was a powerful signal that we’ve made it off the Middle Kingdom’s naughty list.

It’s a marked turnaround after years of hostility from China, sparked by a number of perceived transgressions against it by Australia, including the 2018 decision to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from building the 5G network, calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and the blocking of some Chinese foreign investment deals.

China made its hurt feelings known through imposing punishing tariffs on Australian products, estimated to have cost our economy about $20 billion between 2019 and 2022. Those tariffs have now mostly been unwound and without much in the way of concession from Australia.

And yet still, despite the pandas, the Penfolds wine and the careful diplomatic language about renewal and shared interests, there were clear reminders that our biggest trading partner is still an autocratic regime and our region’s greatest security threat.

Taking her place among her journalistic colleagues at that Parliament House media event was Australian Sky News reporter Cheng Lei, who in October was released from a Chinese jail after being detained for three years on ill-defined charges. Her presence was clearly irritating to the Chinese contingent, two members of which flanked Lei in an apparent attempt to block television news cameras from filming her. Efforts by Australian public servants to move them were ignored.

As Premier Li spoke at the front of the room about mutual respect, members of the Chinese delegation worked to prevent an Australian journalist from doing her job, in her own country, in Australia’s home of democracy. The incident drove home the realities of doing business with China, and their readiness to ignore the rules if it suits them.

The incident was a potent reminder too of the plight of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who remains behind bars in China after he was given a suspended death sentence in February, five years after he was first accused of vague espionage offences.

Mr Albanese said Mr Yang’s case was one of a number of issues he brought up with Mr Li in a “candid” closed-door meeting. It’s a delicate dance for the Prime Minister, whose favourite line when it comes to China is that “will co-operate where we can, and disagree where we must”.

He’ll need all of his political and diplomatic skills to keep the wolf-warrior at bay for good.


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