opinion

OPINION: Panda diplomacy on show as Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrives amidst pomp and protest

Mike Smithson
The Nightly
Panda diplomacy has lived up to its name, with visiting Chinese premier Li Qiang announcing the country will gift Australia two new pandas for Adelaide Zoo.
Panda diplomacy has lived up to its name, with visiting Chinese premier Li Qiang announcing the country will gift Australia two new pandas for Adelaide Zoo. Credit: The West Australian

Panda diplomacy was on show across the weekend with a delicate diplomatic mission accomplished in Adelaide.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang touched down in Australia amid an ongoing, uneasy atmosphere.

He was greeted by adoring fans and as many angry protesters.

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Tension has been swirling for years with crippling trade tariffs, growing concerns over security in the region, questionable human rights and last, but not least, the future of Wang Wang and Fu Ni.

Our two guests have been on loan from China’s Wolong Giant Panda Research Centre since 2009.

The initial agreement was for 10 years, but it was then extended for another five.

There were three options on the eve of Premier’s Li arrival, all of which had people of influence here in the dark.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 16: Wang Wang the Panda at Adelaide Zoo on June 16, 2024 in Adelaide, Australia. Li's visit to Australia aims to strengthen bilateral ties and address outstanding trade and consular issues, including the removal of remaining trade barriers and the release of imprisoned Australian democracy blogger Yang Hengjuno, marking a significant step towards stabilizing the relationship between the two nations. The visit also highlights the growing importance of economic cooperation and the need for dialogue on security concerns, particularly in the context of China's increasing influence in the Pacific region. The visit marks the first high-level diplomatic by a Chinese leader to Australia since 2017. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Wang Wang the Panda at Adelaide Zoo. Credit: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

The cuddly, tourist dollar-generating visitors could have had their visas extended again or been sent packing with replacement pandas taking their place, or it could have been hasta la vista with no future deal.

The pair has been a must-see for hundreds of thousands of zoo visitors over their 15-year journey, costing taxpayers here about $1 million each year.

But they couldn’t make the earth move across five attempted breeding cycles, which was a major part of the bilateral arrangement.

The dynamic duo always had hearts fluttering during their tiny annual breeding window.

On cue, the zoo would express high hopes that vital signs were looking good, only to have them dashed days later.

In some ways that just added to their mystique.

So as the metaphoric drums rolled, Premier Li, flanked by Australia’s Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and SA Premier Peter Malinauskas, delivered the much-anticipated news.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 16: China's Premier Li Qiang gestures while speaking in front of the panda enclosure at Adelaide Zoo on June 16, 2024 in Adelaide, Australia. Li's visit to Australia aims to strengthen bilateral ties and address outstanding trade and consular issues, including the removal of remaining trade barriers and the release of imprisoned Australian democracy blogger Yang Hengjuno, marking a significant step towards stabilizing the relationship between the two nations. The visit also highlights the growing importance of economic cooperation and the need for dialogue on security concerns, particularly in the context of China's increasing influence in the Pacific region. The visit marks the first high-level diplomatic by a Chinese leader to Australia since 2017. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
China's Premier Li Qiang gestures while speaking in front of the panda enclosure at Adelaide Zoo. Credit: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Wang Wang and Fu Ni will exit at year’s end for their traditional climate back in China and Adelaide Zoo will get another pair, whose breeding skills are hoped to be much sharper.

But all the froth, bubble and razzmatazz of the zoo announcement masked something less cute and longer lasting.

Australian wine exporters had been held to ransom after China imposed crippling tariff restrictions in 2020.

That’s cost our producers $20 billion.

It followed the Morrison government pushing through laws against foreign interference in our politics and Chinese companies being excluded from a lucrative 5G contract.

Scott Morrison’s endorsement of an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 also had Beijing seeing red, with stern warnings we were treading a dangerous path.

So, the big freeze was on involving barley, beef, cotton, lamb, timber, wine and lobster. The latter still exists.

If the roles had been reversed, there’s no doubt China would have made the same demands over foreign interference with greater ferocity and menace.

As an international power, it certainly conveys a global message of controlling and calling all the shots.

Lo and behold, as Australia stuck to its guns, China gradually backed down on all but one of the major trade barriers, culminating in wine exports resuming in March.

But that was after almost four years of pain.

The arrogance of China’s actions has only been matched by its bullyboy naval muscle flexing in international waters.

Throw in less-than-subtle courting of our near Pacific neighbours to provide “security and policing” financial aid and one may ask: who’s now yanking whose chain?

From where I sit, we’ve become too accustomed to China as a cash cow for Australian produce and they feel we owe them.

My skin crawled (and still does) over the baby formula milk scandal and the rush to stockpile our product and send it straight to China.

The Chinese saw it as a safer consumer item than their own, hence the rush as it hit our supermarket shelves.

So, moving forward, those export markets are returning, and pandas are back on the front page.

Australian officials needed to be polite to Premier Li over recent days, but did he really need to be fawned over to the extent he was?

Our laid-back approach can be our worst enemy.

I’m convinced most Australian politicians are taken for suckers by their Chinese counterparts.

At least Penny Wong spoke her mind over Taiwan as a “risky flashpoint” and Anthony Albanese may continue the stronger rhetoric with Mr Li.

China’s approach is to win at all costs, with a splash of diplomacy thrown in.

We live in a lucky country, but our luck seems to be running out in a variety of areas, especially large-scale manufacturing.

Sure, have China as a business partner. But look for alternative markets to help keep our own sovereign shores safer and more secure.

Its sabre rattling will only get worse.

I’m starting to wonder what the Australia I know and love will look like 20 years from now.

Mike Smithson is chief reporter and presenter with 7NEWS Adelaide.

He’s covered state politics and world events as a foreign correspondent.

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