Not riding shotgun

A few days after the election, China Daily carried a story under the headline “Australia gains chance to lift China relations”. The newspaper is owned by the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party and its views are largely seen as those of the Chinese government. It’s not journalism but it is useful.

“Relations between Canberra and Beijing deteriorated under the prime ministership of Scott Morrison, whose Liberal-National Party Coalition lost the federal election at the weekend,” the piece noted. “But with a Labor government in power, efforts to improve relations meet the expectations of many voters.”

It noted the “Cold War rhetoric” used by Morrison and said the relationship hit “rock bottom” in March when Australia failed to send condolences after a Chinese passenger plane crashed, killing 132 people. “This is in contrast to the leaders of the United Kingdom, Canada and India.”

This week, in an editorial, the paper praised the Albanese government’s early interactions with China. “Since Anthony Albanese became Australian prime minister on May 23,” it said, “a window of opportunity has opened to ease the tensions between the two countries.”

The paper was positive about a meeting last month between the Chinese vice-minister of foreign affairs and the Australian ambassador to China. It said there was a “willingness to engage” after a side meeting at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. It hoped the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Bali this week would “carry on the positive momentum”.

At the heart of this is a sensitive rebalance, impossible under Scott Morrison’s leadership. As in Europe, it is now clear his approach to China was uniquely alienating. Diplomacy fitted him the same way his suits did. He was allergic to complexity, and Australia’s position in relation to the United States and China is all complexity.

Labor’s recalibration is not simple. It is not a question of appeasement. One side is not good and the other bad. What is clear is old logics no longer hold. America would not obviously win a war with China, nor would it necessarily defend Australia against Beijing. The balance then is between the two.

China Daily puts it like this: Australia is still on the American bandwagon, but it’s no longer riding shotgun. “There is no ‘autopilot’ for the recovery of relations between the two countries. And Canberra undoubtedly holds the key to start that process. In doing so, Australia would be balancing itself between China and the US,” the paper concluded.

“As such, assuming the role of a responsible major player, it would necessarily enjoy much more importance than it did in its previous role as a lackey of the US.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Not riding shotgun".

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