Over the past few years, as Australia’s relations with China have been at historic lows, diplomats from the two countries have continued to meet quietly.
At “officials level” in Canberra and Beijing, meetings have occurred whenever either side has had something it needed to raise. The frequency of these meetings has varied, along with the seniority of those involved.
For a while, Australia’s ambassador to Beijing could not get in to see his counterpart in the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry at all, although contact continued at lower levels.
But while this massaging of the bilateral relationship has kept the blood circulating, it has not led to recovery. Australia has been unwilling to make the changes to its way of thinking that China is demanding as the prerequisite for restoring full good health.
In his speech to the National Press Club this week, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, pointed to this background contact as evidence the two countries have continued to pursue the “many things we have in common”.
“We have diplomatic channels,” Xiao said on Wednesday, seven months into his posting. “It’s quite open between our two countries. When we have difference, we can talk, we can sit down and discuss, try to sort it out and try to narrow it down if possible. Otherwise, we can perhaps lift it aside and focus our efforts on the common areas and go on with our co-operation, because it’s for the good of our two countries. And instead of, you know, focusing so much publicly on the differences.”
But considering the dramatic fallout from United States Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan last week, specialist observers agree those differences are far from trivial. While talking up his country’s desire to reset bilateral ties, Xiao Qian has laid out where China draws its red lines in arguably the plainest terms yet.
“The Taiwanese are compatriots of China and the least thing we’re ready to do is to use force,” Xiao said. “And that is one of the reasons why China has been so patient for several decades. We are waiting. We are waiting for a peaceful unification. But we cannot, we can never rule out the option to use other means.”
Xiao insisted the “Taiwan question” had received too much attention, but he went on to condemn Pelosi and defend China’s response.
“China is compelled to take countermeasures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is legitimate and justified,” he said.
Coming as his country’s military conducted live-fire exercises and drills that encircled Taiwan, Xiao’s speech landed with a thud. It may well prove a key moment, not only in the bilateral relationship but in the public realisation that this situation involving China and Taiwan is not just posturing. It is absolutely, deadly serious.
The head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, Professor Rory Medcalf, believes it should serve as a big wake-up call.
“This was a starkly clarifying moment, confirming there is no going back to a blindly positive relationship, that temporary stability is the best we can hope for, and that clashes of interests and values are unavoidable,” Medcalf tells The Saturday Paper. “It will alert the Australian public and business community to these realities, that our security agencies have been warning about for some time.”
He says it will also be a reality check for government. “I think the government is realising the bilateral relationship cannot exist in isolation from China’s assertive behaviour in the region and we have to prepare the Australian community for that.”
In calling for a relationship reset, Xiao outlined conditions that, realistically, Australia cannot meet. “I think the remarks in totality illustrate the impossibility of a reset,” Medcalf says. “If his mission is a reset, as he defines it, then it’s impossible, by definition. The [Australian] government’s agenda is to stabilise the relationship and he’s illustrated that that’s not impossible, but that it will be permanently fragile.”
Using colloquial English studded with his own metaphors, Xiao Qian laid out China’s perspective, both on the bilateral relationship and on its ambitions for “reunification” with Taiwan.
The speech drove home a few frightening truths.
It is not just that China is seeking to prevent Taiwan from moving towards independence; it does not accept the situation as it stands now. Intolerance of the status quo suggests China will not be dissuaded from addressing it, including by using military force.
“So, when necessary, when compelled, we are ready to use all necessary means,” Xiao said. “As to what does it mean by ‘all necessary means’? You can use your imagination. But the 1.4 billion Chinese people are absolutely determined to protect our sovereignty, territorial integrity.”
The suggestion seemed to be that no amount of skilled diplomacy would shift China from its reunification course. Medcalf rates this highest among the ambassador’s alarming messages.
“The potential for armed aggression against Taiwan – that was a real eye-opener,” Medcalf says. “No matter what we do or say, this risk is real. And China is preparing for this real contingency.”
The challenge for those countries seeking to avoid conflict is to make reunification too costly an option for China to take, by any kind of force.
“Building a deterrence message is important,” Medcalf says. “And that’s not just a military deterrence message, it’s also economic.”
But China’s aggressive nationalism has made the situation extremely volatile. “It’s created a whole set of potential trigger points and, sooner or later, someone’s going to step on one…” Medcalf says. “It’s not a healthy situation at all.”
Within the Australian government and among China observers, there is a palpable frustration that the Pelosi visit occurred at all.
They choose their words very carefully, and some are reluctant to offer them publicly. Medcalf says, “I would call it unwise.”
Others tell The Saturday Paper that while they defend the right of elected representatives to visit Taiwan, such a provocative move in the current climate could only be justified if it was going to deliver something constructive. This visit is seen as having only served domestic political aims – talking tough to China ahead of US congressional midterm elections – with no bigger-picture gain. It has had considerable negative consequences and arguably greatly enhanced the risk of military miscalculation.
Xiao Qian said Pelosi’s visit proved the lack of “sincerity” among countries purporting to have a “One China” policy that officially recognises Taiwan as part of China. He said this is what has escalated tensions in the Taiwan Strait, not China’s response.
“The action, the reaction is legitimate; it’s justified and there’s no reason for reproach.”
Xiao suggested Australia had not properly upheld “One China”, issuing a warning that some observers interpreted as a threat.
“We hope that Australian side could take China–Australia relations with serious attitude,” Xiao said. “Take the ‘One China’ principle seriously. Handle the Taiwan question with caution, without discount.”
The ambassador’s own tone was much more reproach than rapprochement, sharpening significantly when he took journalists’ questions.
Xiao said the future of Taiwan was not in the same category as trade or other issues. “There’s no room for us to compromise.”
He appeared to confirm a suggestion made by China’s ambassador to France that, post-reunification, the Taiwanese would also face re-education – albeit rejecting that description, along with the word “invasion”.
“My personal understanding is that once Taiwanese is reunited coming back to the motherland, there might be a process for the people in Taiwan to have a correct understanding of China.”
Asked about Chinese aircraft buzzing an Australian RAAF jet conducting recent surveillance in international airspace over the South China Sea, Xiao effectively accused Australia of criminal behaviour, likening the Australian flight to a neighbour with a gun looking in the windows of the house next door.
Xiao urged Australia to adopt a more “positive” attitude to China and Australian media to do the same. He suggested China deserved greater respect and that without this it was difficult to continue the “practical co-operation” that formed “a stabiliser and a ballast”. He said “our bilateral relations could have been even worse” if not for that.
As areas of co-operation, he nominated economic development and standards of living, environmental protection and climate action, combating cross-border crime, free trade, regional co-operation and multilateralism. Critics suggest these are being leveraged for China’s geostrategic objectives.
Since the federal election delivered a change of government in Australia, there has been some progress in expanding activities to include meetings at ministerial level. But while changing the government may have also changed the tone of public exchanges, it clearly has not changed the substantial situation.
Xiao stipulated that while China may entertain the idea of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s suggested meeting with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the November G20 meeting in Bali, a more “favourable atmosphere” would first be required.
“If you talking bad about me, why should I meet you?” Xiao proffered, describing Xi’s possible response. “You humiliated me publicly. Should I meet you to be humiliated again face-to-face?”
He said China had declined previous overtures towards leader-level meetings because they could “make things worse”. Insisting it was important for both sides to try to “keep the momentum”, Xiao offered neither concessions nor compromise.
China specialist at the Lowy Institute Richard McGregor says China’s demands have hardened.
“The Chinese offer to Taiwan has been vastly scaled back over the past 25 years,” McGregor says. “It’s now ‘our way or else’.”
The Chinese military drills around Taiwan ended overnight on Wednesday. But ahead of that, China issued a new white paper on Taiwan that specifically referred to the possibility of taking the island by force.
McGregor believes the scale of the exercises represents a dangerous shift – and that the drills are likely to resume. “The exercises are not a signal,” he says. “They are not just political theatre. They’re more than that… They won’t stop. They won’t go on at the present level of intensity, but they will continue in other forms.”
He warns that China has now shown it can blockade Taiwan, and could seek to declare it part of their own customs zone – and enforce that. “Some sort of showdown is getting close,” he says. “I wouldn’t put a time line on it but it’s certainly more likely than it was before. China’s willingness to press the issue is [greater] than it was before because they feel emboldened by their growing strength and they feel militarily capable of it.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong chose not to respond publicly to ambassador Xiao’s speech but spoke two days earlier of the risk of miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait.
“I think what is most critical at the moment is that the temperature is lowered and calm is restored when it comes to cross-Strait tensions,” Wong said “Australia continues to urge restraint.”
Ministers are being extremely guarded in their public commentary – a shift from the loud aggression of the previous government.
But the new government considered China’s firing of ballistic missiles – including into Japan’s exclusive economic zone – in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to be an act requiring strong condemnation. Wong issued a statement jointly with her US and Japanese counterparts. They accused China of “gravely” affecting international peace, “raising tension and destabilising the region”.
Xiao condemned them in return. “It is the US side who’s the one who fired the first shot,” he said.
On ABC Radio National the morning after Xiao’s speech, Treasurer Jim Chalmers was asked for his response to Xiao’s comments on the possible fate of the Taiwanese. He called them “concerning”.
“Our national interests in Australia are best served by peace, stability and prosperity in the region,” Chalmers said. “That means no unilateral change to the status quo. It means restraint and de-escalation. It means calm and consistent language.”
Interviewed next, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton was uncharacteristically bipartisan. “We have strongly supported the government’s position because they’re acting in our country’s best interests…” he said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to be very frank about the threat that is there.”
Dutton’s unusual alignment underscored the seriousness with which the entire political class is viewing this escalation.
He also walked back potentially inflammatory comments made earlier in the week that suggested he supported Taiwanese independence, saying he misspoke and he supports the status quo.
“I want there to be a respect for the current situation and nobody’s advocating anything different from that…” Dutton said. “I support this entire situation as it is at the moment. I don’t support independence. I don’t support the breaking away. I respect China’s position in relation to Taiwan. But I don’t want to see conflict.”
Former Defence minister and Labor leader Kim Beazley, who also served as ambassador to Washington and most recently as Western Australia’s governor, welcomes the toned-down debate.
“One of the good reasons for not talking it up is that it is actually real…” Beazley says of the precarious situation. “Changing the tone is important because we need to now be deadly serious. And holding principles but discussing them seriously is about as important as anything can be if you want to lower temperatures.”
Beazley tells The Saturday Paper that it is clear the Chinese have planned for the scenario that has been playing out in the waters around Taiwan.
“It looks as though, when you look at the things they’ve been doing, that the Chinese have been giving this a lot of thought and now they’re going to give it a lot of practice.”
He emphasises the need to press for peaceful, diplomatic solutions. “We need to find room for statecraft with China. We haven’t discerned that path and there may not be any.”
Beazley also notes that Australia’s policy allows for reunification. “It’s not our policy position to prevent it,” he says. “It’s our policy position to have it – if it occurs – on a peaceful basis. That’s our policy position. It’s not neutral. We would want that to happen by a peaceful process.”
But having now instigated a rapid review of Australia’s military capability, the government is also preparing for what happens if diplomacy fails – and maybe even when.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2022 as "‘There is no going back … temporary stability is the best we can hope for’".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription