Preparations are under way in China for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit, but optimism for a restoration of ties is clouded by concerns about Australia’s policy alignment with the US. By Karen Middleton.

Labor’s re-engagement with China

Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Australian journalist Cheng Lei at Melbourne Airport after Cheng was released from detention by China.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Australian journalist Cheng Lei at Melbourne Airport after Cheng was released from detention by China.
Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

October skies are blue in Beijing. It’s said to be the best time of year and the crowds are out, strolling Jingshan Fore Street along the Forbidden City’s northern wall, enjoying the last warm sunsets before the winter chill. This year, Beijing’s glorious northern autumn heralds a kind of diplomatic spring. In bilateral relations with Australia, the thaw is on.

I spent last week in China as one of four Australian correspondents invited on what used to be an annual journalism exchange co-sponsored by the Melbourne-based Asia Pacific Journalism Centre and the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA) in Beijing. The program began a decade ago and has been on hiatus since 2019. While the pandemic forced the pause, the state of relations has not been conducive to the frank and friendly dialogue and quest for mutual understanding that are the program’s objectives.

This year, though, the Chinese were keen for Australian journalists to return. The trip coincided with the further lifting of trade embargoes on Australian commodities and came just three weeks before Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was due to arrive for the first head-of-government visit since 2016.

“I look forward to visiting China, an important step towards ensuring a stable and productive relationship,” Albanese said in announcing both his three-day visit, from November 4, and that China was winding back its restrictions on Australian wine imports.

On our visit, appointments were arranged by the ACJA which, like every other official organisation, is connected to the Chinese Communist Party. Restrictions notwithstanding, the conversations were fascinating.

Our program was timed as a curtain-raiser to Albanese’s visit, which both sides hope will signal the formal end to recent years’ hostilities. There has been much diplomatic work – especially in the past 18 months – to get to the point of an Australian prime minister returning to China. The combination of last year’s change of government in Australia and next week’s 50th anniversary of then prime minister Gough Whitlam’s landmark China visit provided the opportunity. China’s economic circumstances provided the motivation.

Amid some oblique dialogue over the course of the week, the most direct messages were delivered in an almost-two-hour discussion with carefully selected academics at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies – conducted in English.

“[For] at least three months, we two countries did not criticise each other, do you notice that?” asks Zhou Rong, a respected commentator and former Chinese journalist with a master’s degree in Australian studies. Zhou points to Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s visit to Beijing in December last year to mark the half-century of formal diplomatic relations as a key milestone, along with another visit last month by an Australian delegation.

“Your foreign minister came to Beijing to have a good meeting with our foreign minister, Wang Yi, and, of course, she also has Chinese blood,” Zhou says. “And also, we lifted almost all the restriction on Australian goods. That is also encouraging. We have already established a very sound, healthy atmosphere for welcoming Prime Minister Albanese for his visit to China. That will be a historic visit. That is the icebreaking visit of China.”

Albanese arrives in China 50 years to the day since Whitlam concluded the five-day visit that cemented the diplomatic ties he established the previous year and heralded the opening of an Australian embassy in Beijing. Whitlam also travelled there as opposition leader in 1971, when the McMahon government was resisting forging formal ties. Just days after the 1971 visit, the then United States president, Richard Nixon, announced his own trip to Beijing, which occurred the following February. As a result of Whitlam’s move, Australian correspondents in China preceded their American colleagues by five years. Now, journalists’ repeated requests for long-term visas are regularly refused.

Four days before we arrived, China released Australian journalist Cheng Lei from three years in detention and sent her home to her children and partner in Australia. Another Chinese Australian, writer Yang Hengjun, remains detained. His health is deteriorating and, at time of press, his fate is unclear.

Cheng, who was born in China, had been working for a Chinese state-owned television network when she was arrested in 2020 and accused of passing secrets to a foreign power. In television interviews in Australia this week, the business journalist revealed she broke an embargo on some official data, conveying it privately to a colleague a few minutes before it was allowed to be made public, apparently in the context of her work. Amid the hostilities between the countries of her birth and citizenship, the punishment was vast.

The Chinese system views foreigners with Chinese heritage differently from those without – Penny Wong’s Malaysian heritage was also mentioned during our talks – and they face extra pressure, especially those who speak Chinese.

However, all journalists working for Australian media have been affected by the diplomatic freeze. The last to have worked there, the ABC’s Bill Birtles and Mike Smith of The Australian Financial Review, were arrested, questioned and forced to flee in September 2020. China-based Australian journalists have not been allowed to return since.

China’s decision to host a handful of Australian journalists on a closely guided eight-day tour is a long way short of welcoming back permanent correspondents. Nevertheless, our low-key excursion was clearly meant to be a start.

Across the week, when we asked how the problems with Australia began and what had worsened them, a range of explanations were offered, foremost among them being Australia’s ban on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei – with other implied references to cyber suspicions – and the previous Australian government’s call for an inquiry into China’s possible role in disseminating Covid-19. Simmering beneath them all was China’s great unwanted “decoupling”, with repeated references to the country’s deteriorating relationship with Australia’s foremost ally, the United States.

At the Chongyang Institute, Liu Zhiqin, a respected scholar and Renmin University senior fellow expert in security, international trade and finance, told us Australia should act more independently of the US. Liu describes Australia’s political situation as “not stable” and influenced too much by the US and others.

“It sometimes shows that they don’t have their own independent ideas,” he says. “They ought to make their own decisions. Sometimes, in my opinion, Australians always behave like a fellow following the big brother.

“Maybe from both sides, we can try our best to make cooperation and mutual understanding, mutual support. That’s a better image to promote. A positive image.”

Liu calls Australia a “very special power” that does not recognise its own capacity for global economic and political influence.

“Of course, in the recent three years or four years, according to the decoupling from some other major powers, we have some negative impact [in relation] to China,” Liu says. But he assures us Chinese scholars still have “a very positive image” of Australia, compared with the US and Europe.

“But of course, we are still concerned and much confused about the former government,” Liu says. “What’s the reason that they take [such] hard lines to deal with China? Of course, today the new government and new cabinet are much progressive, much practical, with a close connection with each other.”

Zhou Rong goes further, insisting China wants to see “a very independent and strategic, autonomous Australia”. He has some pointed suggestions for new Australian roles as political go-between, trade partner in new markets and research collaborator.

“You don’t need to depend on other countries,” he says. “You are a European Asian country or you are a white Asian country, so you can function as a bridge between Asia with America – North America – and Europe. And also lastly … we should have a lot of collaboration. One thing we can do is innovation in knowledge cooperation on science and technology and especially agricultural, clean energy area. We can do a lot.”

On the downside, the institute scholars fear Australia’s security manoeuvres are part of a wider move to establish a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-style body in Asia. They criticise its involvement in the Quad security dialogue with India, Japan and the US, and the AUKUS pact.

“Do we really believe they can get nuclear submarines someday?” one of the academics asks.

Prime Minister Albanese’s visit to Washington, DC, this week served as an opportunity to press key figures in Congress to progress the submarine deal, which cannot proceed without US legislation. Along with events in the Middle East, relations with China were also due to feature strongly in the White House talks.

China is watching it all closely. It will not have missed the rare public comments last week by the intelligence chiefs from Australia and its Five Eyes partners warning about the cyber threat it poses.

At our meeting, Zhou chooses to emphasise what Australia and China have in common and says they should discuss their points of disagreement. He emphasises that he and his colleagues want to show the Chinese people’s “great, friendly feeling towards our Australian friends”.

“Hopefully, Australia may just do the similar thing as we are doing today to enhance our friendship,” he says. “We are very responsible for the stability, for the security of the peace and the prosperity of Asia-Pacific region. And I think we two should deserve that kind of responsible commitment.”

The scholars, like others we ask, see the future of Taiwan as a separate issue. As another foreign-educated Chinese citizen puts it to us strenuously at a separate meeting, the Chinese people believe they “must recover the lost child”. She insists China does not want to do that by force, but is equally emphatic that it will be done and that China has “been very patient”. When it’s put to her the Taiwanese people may not wish for “unification”, she replies that it is what the 1.4 billion mainland majority want, and their wish should, and will, prevail.

Another academic in the Chongyang Institute delegation, professor of economics at the University of International Business and Economics Gong Jiong, challenges what he notes is the widely accepted narrative in Australia – for which he blames government – “that somehow China represents a security risk to Australian society or to Australia”.

“And this just really puzzles me and a lot of scholars here in China,” Gong says. “China really harbours no ambition at all in anything remotely close to Australia. And why is it that the politicians in Australia were even talking about China representing a security risk to Australia? That is something hard to accept and understand.”

He says China’s courting of countries in the South Pacific is about actively pushing its Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure development, which he insists is about economic development and not security pacts. If there are issues between Australia and China over this, they should discuss it, without “resorting to and elevating these concerns to a level that damages the two countries’ relationship”.

Zhou Rong says China’s other interest in the Pacific is in reducing Taiwan’s reach there. “China will not want to invade any kind of Australian interest in the area,” Zhou says. “No. We have no interest, only wanting to expel all the influences from Taiwan.”

Gong also wants to know why there is so much anti-China sentiment in Australia. “What led to … a fairly large percentage of the population in Australian society that tends to be thinking in the mindset of, I will say, some Americans that, ‘Oh, these are communists, these are Red China, blah blah blah’? That’s kind of a very old cliché kind of perspective and mindset, I will say, of a lot of people in Australia.”

Gong suggests Australia has not prioritised its economic relationship with China during the past few years.

Shanghai-based Australian businessman Peter Arkell, formerly head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in China, believes firmly in the economic upside. “The risks are very manageable. They shouldn’t be a barrier to coming here. The opportunities are far too great.”

Arkell runs consultancy Carrington Day and holds board positions with other companies. After what he describes as a diplomatic “drought” engulfing the two countries for several “grim” years, a gradual “clearing of the decks” is returning the relationship to what he hopes will be something near normal.

“They probably feel that the point’s been made,” he says of the Chinese. “I think everyone needs an off-ramp.”

Arkell has lived in Shanghai for 20 years and also believes economics has brought the Chinese back to the table. “The Chinese see that relationships can be built on an economic platform and that the rest of the relationship will look after itself.”

At government level, the Australian side chooses its language carefully. The stock phrase from Albanese and Wong is Australia and China will “cooperate where we can, disagree where we must”. That means, while some concerns remain, there are areas in which greater cooperation and a better relationship with China is in Australia’s national interest. Wong has previously nominated climate change mitigation in particular.

Significantly, however, the Labor government has not changed its predecessors’ security settings and says economics can no longer be separated from security within the relationship.

The continuity includes not cancelling the 99-year lease over the Port of Darwin granted to the Chinese-owned company Landbridge in 2015. Before last year’s election, Albanese vowed to order a security review. Not accidentally, the result of that review was announced on Friday last week. The government declared it believed it had a robust critical-infrastructure risk management system in place and solid enough monitoring measures to justify leaving it as is. To do otherwise would have sent a damaging signal to China at a sensitive diplomatic time.

That is the main concession thus far from the Australian side in the lead-up to the Albanese visit. Smaller goodwill gestures are also flowing. On Wednesday night, Arts Minister Tony Burke attended a ceremony at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra to return three Chinese antiquities that had been smuggled into Australia and seized at the border sometime over the past year.

China’s military ambitions and cyber behaviour remain sticking points. Wong and Albanese and their colleagues say the relationship can never go back to exactly how it used to be.

Most significantly, China’s introduction of a Chinese security law in 2017 under President Xi Jinping that obliges all Chinese businesses to cooperate with Chinese intelligence services when required, including providing data, has changed the game.

The Australian side deliberately does not call this a “reset” or a “normalisation” of relations, talking about “stabilisation” instead. The very clear message is that some of what has changed on the Chinese side during the freeze makes such a return impossible. Instead, the parties are seeking a kind of economic détente that will allow them to work together more closely on areas of mutual benefit, including climate and energy, and law enforcement.

November generally brings snow in Beijing and both governments are working hard to project warmth. Contingencies will be inbuilt to guard against future inclement episodes. And Australia remains wary of a long-range forecast for storms.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Thaw in Beijing".

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

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription