Australia’s path forward towards 50 more years of relations with China

“We will cooperate where we can: (and) disagree where we must act in the national interest”. A carefully worded quote from Anthony Albanese as he came out of his “warm and constructive” meeting with China’s President Xi. Carefully worded because the PM knows that China is crucial to the ongoing well-being of the Australian economy and because he also knows, no politician in the current media climate dares to openly say nice things about China without that caveat.

Day two of the G20 and perhaps the most important meeting of the day was that of Australia and China’s leaders. China is too important an economy for Australia to dismiss but, as far as China is concerned, Australia isn’t irreplaceable. Australia’s business people, politicians and community leaders know this but Australian media would like us to believe something else. Current figures are that China exports only 2% of its products to Australia and imports just over 6% of its total from Australia but is still Australia’s Number one and therefore most important market for exports (188bn) and supplier of imports (93bn).

Source https://www.dfat.gov.au/sites/default/files/trade-and-investment-glance-2021.pdf Accessed 16th Nov 2022

As some media reports go, the meeting was a victory for Australia and a capitulation for China, China’s Global Times however, sees it differently: “China values Australia’s recent willingness to improve and develop bilateral relations” was one of Xi’s quotes, and was not contradicted by Albanese during the meeting, nor in his press conference afterwards. The fact that Penny Wong and her opposite number in China, Wang Yi have had several good discussions in the past is a positive sign and, as they pack their bags and head to Thailand for the APEC meeting, it’s almost certain there will be more. Australian trade with China has never gone down, this is just something the media would have us believe, there were a few trade disputes and it all seemed quite serious. But what is known is that trade between the two could certainly improve considerably, if only the relationship were better.

Every Australian knows what will happen when anyone mentions something they read in the paper, saw on the news or clicked online to be truth, they will be ridiculed: “you can’t believe everything you read in the papers” or, sarcastic rejoinders such as: “Well, if it’s in the papers, it must be true!”. This leads us to one of the modern world’s most fascinating dichotomies.

No one believes what they read in the papers; of course, hardly anyone reads the papers, we get our information online from Twitter, YouTube or other social media sites that were designed as entertainment but have now become our go-to sources for news. In doing so, we create our own information bias through following and interacting with like-minded people. Unfortunately, much of the information provided to us, is untrue.

No one believes what they read in the papers but everyone is willing to believe everything evil and wrong about China. Read any mainstream media’s headlines and you’d be forgiven for thinking China is evil. Even “Australia’s ABC reported that: “Xi has overseen what has been called a genocide…” and Xi: “threatens Taiwan with an invasion”, he’s also “crushed dissent” and is “tearing up the commitment to one country two systems”. All this in just one paragraph and none of them are true!

As always with mainstream media there is a kernel of truth wrapped up with misunderstandings, misrepresentations, often mistranslations (deliberate or otherwise), cobbled together and glued in place with misinformation.

Politicians, wary of losing votes, dare not go against public opinion and public opinion is formed by media. Much of Australian public opinion is formed by Australia’s most influential (American owned and headquartered) media group, News Corp limited. Many of their articles on China are written by reporters with connections to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) or sourced from material published by ASPI. Yet, ASPI, despite claiming independence, are connected to, substantially paid and therefore clearly influenced by Departments of Defence, the US State Department and many international military contractors.

The previously quoted ABC article is a lead article on their website on 16th November 2022, and written by Stan Grant, one of ABC’s, and perhaps Australia’s, most recognised and senior correspondents who also happens to be, or has been, a senior fellow of ASPI. The lack of disclosure on this matter is something that has been questioned in the past.

So now we enter a different dichotomy. If the US State Department and our US influenced media would like Australia to be unfriendly towards China, then America should lead by example and also be unfriendly towards China. Yet, a day before President Joe Biden, met and had very friendly discussions with President Xi. Now Australia’s PM has done the same. But this apparent friendship has limitations.

Biden is the same president who once called Xi “a thug” and has recently enacted the CHIPS for America Act which prohibits investments in, and prevents sales of, semiconductors to China. The same President who presides over a Senate which has recently approved the United States Innovation and Competition Act to counter China’s growth. All this while conducting friendly meetings with Xi, online in November last year and several times by telephone and letter since coming to office. In other words, what we’re seeing on the surface, the friendship and talk of ongoing cooperation can’t continue.

Biden will return to the USA and face a Senate and Congress that, even if they do remain under the control of his own party, won’t support him on being friendly to China. He’ll also face already low approval rate and risks dropping further if he’s considered to be “soft” on China. So, words across a conference table in Bali are unlikely to transcend into positive actions in Washington. There are, for example, right now over 5000 items of legislation or resolutions in the House which are anti-China in nature. It’s unlikely any of them will be pulled out of the system because Biden and Xi are now friends again.

Australia doesn’t suffer the same failings. The Prime Minister controls the House and, in theory, his own party which then supports him, his electorate currently support him too. He’s new to the role and can blame trade and diplomatic failures on his predecessor, he has over 2 years of this election cycle left to prove that he has the ability to deal with China and make it work in a way that satisfies all parties.

This means that Australia must, for the time being at least, go its own way with China, it must form its own foreign policy and must do so without relying on leadership from the USA because that leadership is a hash of mixed messages. At the same time Penny Wong in meetings with Wang Yi and Albanese in any future dialogue with Xi, both need to be seen to deliver on their commitments of ongoing diplomacy as Australia and China enter their 50th year of relations.

Much more importantly, if Australia is to start a journey back to something approaching the relationship of previous years, they need to disregard the rhetoric of US influences in Australian media and potentially the general public too. What is clear and obvious is that they will incur the wrath of the Press. The same press that is perpetuating the myths of HK democracy, Xinjiang Forced labour and genocide, imagining invasions of a Chinese province by a Chinese military and the same press that has destroyed many political careers in the past by driving popular politicians into infamy or notoriety through some real, or perceived, incident in their past[JG1] .

According to Australian media, the ABC says this meeting will “not extinguish differences”. Most people in China would not want the differences to be changed, Chinese people are not the same as Australian people, they view many things in a different way and are, for the most part, extremely happy with their government.

The Australian edition of the Guardian says Australia will “stick to its values”. What hasn’t been defined is exactly what those values are. The US has a myriad of inherent problems that seem to be beyond fixing. Crime, health, poverty, gun violence, drugs, debt, income inequality, legal and acceptable corruption in government (lobbying) and even a huge amount of distrust in both governance and media. Australia, by following the US, is almost certain to inherit some, if not all of these values while China has none of these issues.

The Australian Financial Review states the entire reason for Xi’s “about face” is because of his “problems at home”. Granted there are some problems in China, Covid is causing minor restrictions in travel and some serious restrictions in small pockets of the country. Citywide lockdowns are a thing of the past and China’s economy has started the road to recovery. China is the only major economy to continue growth throughout the Pandemic, it’s continued with its poverty alleviation and Rural Revitalisation programs, infrastructure projects have been brought forward or continued on time. The problems China is experiencing are minor and localised, not national, nor the systemic failures of governance seen in other countries. No problem that exists in China could match the type of problems currently being experienced by the USA and which are likely to be experienced by Australia if they were to discontinue working with their largest trading partner or follow the USA into a path of conflict.

The takeway from the G20 meeting for Australia must be that there is an opportunity to do better. China welcomes the opportunity and opens its doors to increasing trade. If Australia really does have the kinds of problems with China that ASPI, Australian media and ABC’s Stan Grant suggest, then China would welcome the opportunity to address them.

Albanese could ask Xi to allow his Ambassador, Graham Fletcher, to take look at Xinjiang, it will be granted; Consular General, Elizabeth Ward in Hong Kong could leave her office and talk with everyday Hong Kongers in the streets, opinions will be different but mostly positive; Embassy staff could look for and report examples of “crushed dissent”, they won’t find any; Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs staff could read the official translations of what Xi has said on Taiwan, they’ll find he has never indicated he will take it by force, he’s always said he would prevent others taking it away from China and won’t rule out force if that happens. These are the realities.

For Albanese, he has the opportunity to restart the next 50 years on a more positive footing. Exactly as our predecessors did in December 1972 when diplomatic relations were established between Australia and the People’s Republic of China. This needs to be celebrated on 22nd December, the anniversary or a New Start date. It’s really up to him.

[JG1]Dan Andrews, the Premier of Victoria is currently undergoing this. He’s popular with the electorate but unpopular with the press. He’s the Premier who signed up for the BRI and then was told to tear up the agreement because Federal government legislated to stop it. His wife had a car accident 12 years ago and he’s being accused of wrongdoing now. Not by the police, but by the press.

Another example is the former Attorney General, Christian Porter, a popular man who looked likely to challenge Peter Dutton as the next leader of the Liberal Party. He was accused of a rape that allegedly happened when he was a teenager and had been exonerated by a police enquiry.

These are long stories, not suitable for an article such as this but mentioned to demonstrate how people can fall after Murdoch’s press and the ABC get a story and kill their careers.

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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences