After the end of a two-year diplomatic freeze between China and Australia, the new Albanian government is embarking on a grand experiment: is a different tone enough to put relations on a better footing?

Gone are Peter Dutton’s blunt statements that Beijing wants to turn countries like Australia into tributary states, as is the prediction that Australia would almost certainly join in any US-led military action to defend Taiwan against ‘invasion.

Anthony Albanese’s government has returned to Australia’s longstanding bipartisan stance against any unilateral change to the status quo.

At the same time, the new Labor government has stepped up its support for the Quads and Aukus – both denounced by Beijing as “anti-China” groupings – and continues to demand an end to trade sanctions against Australian export sectors, while insisting he will not hesitate to raise human rights concerns.

Richard Maude, a former senior Australian intelligence and foreign affairs official, said the “big unanswered question” is whether to adopt a different tone while maintaining broad continuity on all policies China opposes” is going to be enough to sustain a relationship in which high-level political dialogue resumes and trade coercion comes to an end.”

“I don’t think the government has any illusions about how difficult this could be,” says Maude.

The freezer

An awkward nudge between the new Defense Minister, Richard Marles, and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, marked a milestone in relations between the two countries. The meeting on the sidelines of a security summit in Singapore last Sunday was the first time the Chinese and Australian defense ministers had met in person since November 2019, before the pandemic, when Linda Reynolds greeted Wei during a regional meeting in Thailand.

China had not allowed phone calls or meetings between Australian ministers and their direct counterparts since early 2020, when already frosty relations soured, in part due to the Australian government’s early plea for an international investigation. independent on the origins of Covid-19.

Beijing then introduced high tariffs, unofficial bans and stricter control requirements on Australian exports such as barley, beef, wine and coal, causing both sides of Australian politics to speak out against the ” economic coercion”.

There was no obvious exit ramp.

Chinese officials have repeatedly argued that Canberra must take steps to foster a “better mood” as a precondition for resuming the high-level dialogue. Scott Morrison’s government understood that to mean unacceptable compromises on the issues identified in China’s now infamous 14-point list of grievances. But in recent months, China’s new ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, and other Chinese officials have made several overtures to dialogue and suggested the post-election period will provide “a good opportunity” for building bridges.

Albanese’s team – pushing back on pre-election accusations from Morrison and Dutton that Labor was “placing” China – promised to uphold Australian interests and values ​​in what would remain a difficult relationship, but with one specific change: no not politicize issues for domestic political purposes.

It is this approach that will now be tested. Marles traveled to Tokyo this week to reinforce the message that Australia would continue to expand defense cooperation with Japan (“the best of friends”) regardless of any rapprochement with China.

Although there has been a change in tone from Australia’s new government, Marles told reporters, there has been “absolutely no change in the substance of Australia’s national interests” – including the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South and East China Seas.

The ball is in China’s court

Albanese said this week he wanted Beijing to remove “trade sanctions” against Australian exporters as a vital next step towards improving the relationship.

But Commerce Minister Don Farrell was unable to secure a meeting with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao on the sidelines of a World Trade Organization conference they were both attending in Geneva this week.

Maude, now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, says it “would be a mistake to make it look like we were in too much of a rush” for another meeting.

He led the whole-of-government task force behind the 2017 Australian foreign policy white paper, which warned of “an increasingly complex and contested Indo-Pacific”.

Maude says a change of tone from the Australian government could be helpful, but there are “many challenges”.

“After Donald Trump left, there really wasn’t anyone in the world talking about China the way Australia did, so a change in tone wouldn’t put us out of step with our close partners at all. “, he says.

But he wonders how far this change in tone could take Australia, given that China has ’embedded itself very firmly’ in its position and he doesn’t think Australia should concede anything substantial. on the main points of disagreement.

When asked if there was one small gesture Australia could offer China in the coming weeks or months, other than adopting a different tone, Maude paused for a moment. “Not really,” he finally replies.

The climate, health are two possible first steps

Maude predicts that both parties are “likely to work their way through quite carefully and cautiously and look for a step-by-step process that builds trust.”

Significant concessions on either side are “highly unlikely”. Maude says a better way to frame the task is to find an agenda “that is positive in nature and advances the interests of both countries,” such as climate change and health security. Tropical medicine, cancer research and development cooperation are other options.

Hayley Channer, senior policy researcher at the Perth USAsia Center, said bilateral relations “took a hammer blow in the run-up to the federal election,” so China’s willingness to resume high-level talks immediately afterwards is “very welcome and positive”. .

“These differences cannot be reconciled in the short term, but high-level meetings help to clarify positions – which removes at least some ambiguity, which can lead to bad decisions in the defense space”, Channer said.

Channer suggests that Foreign Secretary Penny Wong could deliver an Australian foreign policy speech to clearly outline the new government’s position on China and the region.

This would follow the example of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said in a speech last month that Joe Biden’s administration would vigorously defend “an open and inclusive international system” but would not seek a “cold war”. with China.

A wider diplomatic reach

Wong has moved quickly since the election to deepen ties with Pacific island nations amid heightened competition with China for influence in the region.

On Friday, Wong traveled to the Solomon Islands – the fourth Pacific island nation on her itinerary since she was sworn in – and welcomed personal assurances from Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare “that he won’t ‘will be no military base or persistent foreign military presence here. in the Solomon Islands.

“We may not have been perfect, but we are family,” Wong told reporters in the capital, Honiara. “Your safety and our safety are linked.”

Marles used the meeting with Wei last Sunday to argue against putting the Pacific in “a position of increased militarization.”

Marles also raised concerns about the dangerous interception by a Chinese fighter jet of a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 surveillance plane over the South China Sea region on May 26. The Australian government says the incident happened in international airspace – and that the Chinese J-16 plane dropped “a chaff packet containing small pieces of aluminium, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft”.

But China’s Ministry of National Defense said the Australian plane had “entered airspace near China’s Xisha Islands” – a disputed area also known as the Paracel Islands – and “seriously threatened the sovereignty and China’s security”.

“The negotiating table, not the battlefield”

Former Australian Army intelligence analyst Clinton Fernandes, who is a professor of international and political studies at UNSW Canberra, said the rift between China and Australia stemmed from the ambiguity of the convention of United Nations on the Law of the Sea.

Fernandes explains that Australian planes and ships are not in the South China Sea region for “sightseeing”.

China’s concerns over intelligence operations and power projection in other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) have support from other major countries in the region, he said.

“India protested in April 2021 when the United States conducted a freedom of navigation operation 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s Exclusive Economic Zone,” it said. Fernandes said.

“Indonesia and the Philippines quietly agree with this position.”

China began conducting intelligence-gathering and presence operations in other countries’ EEZs, including Australia, and “justifying its behavior by saying it wouldn’t do it if Australia took its own position. on the sovereignty of the EEZs”.

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While Australian politicians continue to declare that Australia stands for freedom of navigation and overflight, Fernandes says the Australian public has “the right to know what is really at stake”.

“This is precisely what international law is ambiguous about. What needs to be settled at the negotiating table and not on the battlefield is: do we want exclusive economic zones to be legitimate areas of power projection and intelligence gathering? »

This is not a difference that can easily be resolved in one meeting.