Mark Riley: Australia’s resilience has forced China to use a different tack

The Nightly
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, left, meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, left, meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Credit: Ding Haitao/AP

Anthony Albanese’s visit to Beijing’s famous Temple of Heaven this week was a moment rich in metaphor and symbolism.

But not everyone was thrilled.

The event marked 50 years since Gough Whitlam toured the Ming dynasty temple as the first prime minister to officially visit China.

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In a country that treasures its history and rituals, the significance of retracing Whitlam’s footsteps was profound.

Fifty years ago, Whitlam established relations with China. A half a century later, Albanese was here to repair them.

Anthony Albanese and Chinese Premier Li Qiang
Anthony Albanese and Chinese Premier Li Qiang met at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

But the presence of the Australian Prime Minister also meant the major tourist attraction was closed to other visitors for several hours.

That left long lines of shivering Chinese nationals waiting outside in the bitterly cold wind.

One man unloaded his frustration on the travelling Australian media as we emerged at the end of the tour.

“F… you!” he yelled, pointing threateningly in the face of one young female journalist. “Bastards!”

The welcome Albanese received from President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People several hours later was much warmer and more diplomatic.

Albanese’s simple objective was to reopen the lines of communication with China at the highest level after seven years of diplomatic hostility.

On that, it was mission accomplished.

Xi lauded his visitor, praising Albanese for employing a “mature” attitude towards the relationship.

The unspoken corollary of that was that Xi thought the attitudes of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison had been immature.

But even Albanese would disagree with that. Turnbull was right to call out China for its pernicious attempts at political interference in Australia, its constantly disruptive cyber attacks on our systems and its wanton theft of Australian intellectual property.

And Morrison was appropriately praised at the time for saying out loud what most leaders were thinking about the need for a thorough-going investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China’s Wuhan province.

Their actions were justified. China’s response in slapping $22 billion in trade bans on Australia was not.

That is why Albanese made clear going into this mission that there was no way of going back to the relationship Australia enjoyed before China hurled it into the deep freeze in 2016.

This was not so much a “reset” of the relationship as a “reimagining”.

It was one instructed both China’s harsh actions and Australia’s resilience.

The trade bans hurt, but not as much as China imagined they would.

PM Anthony Albanese at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Anthony Albanese received a ceremonial welcome at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

Australia was able to effectively hedge that impact by expanding existing markets and exploiting new ones.

Importantly, successive Australian governments steadfastly refused to buckle to China’s coercion.

We stood strong and we’re better for it. Strength in the face of adversity begets respect.

The change of approach now under Albanese is the product of one of the defining differences between him and Morrison.

While Morrison ratcheted the rhetoric up to ferocious and stayed there, Albanese maintained the strength but declared himself open to discussion.

It is, he says, always better to talk through your differences than just yell about them.

He told Xi communication was essential at times of differences because through communication comes understanding.

And Albanese understands what China is doing.

Xi Jinping is on a concerted campaign of re-engagement with the West, fearing the prevailing approach of “de-risking without decoupling” in the US and elsewhere could further damage his already strained domestic economy.

Xi realises he needs the West more than it needs him.

And so he and his effective deputy, Premier Li Qiang, laid the charm on thick this week.

Xi smiled and complimented and employed a bit of levity with stories of Tasmanian devils and Kung Fu Panda.

Li went for out-and-out flattery telling Albanese that his visit had been prefaced by excited talk on Chinese social media about the impending arrival of the “handsome boy from Australia”.

Albanese wisely let all that go through to the keeper.

From his point of view, Australia and China are talking again and that is positive. The remaining billion-dollar restrictions on Australian rock lobster, beef and wine will soon disappear. That is good news for WA producers.

Albanese says, though, he is clear-eyed about the nature of the relationship. The signals now are positive, but there’s always the chance of more abuse if the winds again turn bitterly cold.

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