China and Australia puzzles from flags, 3D rendering China and Australia puzzles from flags, 3D rendering

Chinese Premier’s visit to Australia: any shared aspirations beyond trade?

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Fengshi Wu
Fengshi Wu,

The joint statement issued after the visit is significant in setting the tone for coming conversations between Australia and China.

Judging by headlines and social media, the central focus and outcomes of Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia seem to be trade and economic issues. Upon the return of the current pair, a new pair of pandas will be delivered to Adelaide Zoo next year, with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong’s observations highlighting the benefits for local tourism and the economy.

In Canberra, Li announced that China would unilaterally introduce a “visa-free program” for Australian citizens to ease the process of business and personnel exchanges between the two countries. In response to Li’s specially arranged stop in Perth and meeting with Chinese-owned mining companies, key observers interpret the Australian government's need to negotiate with China in this area as “economics 101” – to avoid market monopoly and overreliance. Overall, it is understandable that trade and the economy, despite pending impediments, are where the two sides can find the most common ground.

Rights groups and dissidents made their presence visible in all the cities Li visited, outside and inside the formal meeting rooms (withstanding occasional blockage by Chinese embassy staff). However, not much progress has been made regarding their demands.

Leaders on both sides are keen to reap immediate political benefits out of the high-level meetings that took place. For Li, who is only two years into his Premiership and has never been a Deputy Premier before (the only such case in PRC’s history after the first Premier Zhou Enlai), achieving good trade and economic relationship with Australia will significantly enhance his international profile and performance record. Like his predecessors, Li's political legacy will be primarily assessed by his capacity to direct and ensure China's economic growth. The pressure to boost economic performance is equally on Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. After the significant downfall of the “yes” campaign for an Indigenous Voice to federal parliament to be included in the constitution, some public polls show that the Coalition is narrowing the gap or that Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is already superseding Albanese as the preferred prime minister.

So, what else can be said about the visit? Anything beyond political pragmatism and tangible gains in terms of trade and voters’ preferences? The Statement on the Joint Outcomes of the Australia-China­­­­­ Annual Leaders’ Meeting issued by the Prime Minister’s office offers a glimpse of what a potential shared vision might look like. The Statement first endorses the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries and commemorates the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Partnership and the foundational role of the 1972 Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between the People's Republic of China and Australia in the bilateral relationship. After the US and China stopped formally commemorating the 50th anniversary of normalisation of their bilateral relationship in 2022, the mutual respect, recognition of the diplomatic history, and expressions of friendliness between Canberra and Beijing are as if at a different level.

Next, the Statement reaffirms the importance of the United Nations Charter and the World Trade Organisation, a formal position consistently taken by the Chinese government, especially when facing thorny issues in international territorial disputes and conflicts. Since the George W. Bush’s administration, the US has increasingly activated unilateral actions, without the support of the UN, in global affairs. While the US considers China a “rule breaker” and an aggressive revisionist “rising power”, China often utilises the normative legitimacy of the UN to promote a diplomatic rhetoric that recentres global order around the UN.

Top Australian leaders, from all parties, have met top Chinese politicians this week and in various other multilateral and bilateral settings at a time when such occasions across political-strategic lines are declining.

Most importantly, the Statement outlines a detailed list of regular bilateral dialogues to take place, including not only trade and economic issues, but also climate change, education, people-to-people exchanges, and “Defence Strategic Dialogue and Defence Coordination Dialogue, and convening an initial session of a bilateral Maritime Affairs Dialogue”. This progress in communication in defence and security areas is the least expected, even though it is still at the stage of being announced. The Albanese government’s decision to join the AUKUS security alliance right after winning the election almost turned Australia-China’s military collaboration 180 degrees. With the intensification of US-China rivalry since 2012 (Barack Obama’s second term as President), joining AUKUS put Australia in a position where the room to “hedge” between China and the US drastically shrank – meaning it is not as easy as before for Australia to have a robust economic and comprehensive relation with China and a constitutional-level military alliance with the US simultaneously.  Not for long, at least.

These dialogues will play a vital role in the coming era of Australia-China relations and Australia’s global strategy. Having direct communication channels with Beijing – not at the expense of losing the same with Washington, DC – could be a strategic asset, instead of a liability, for Canberra. Top Australian leaders, from all parties, have met top Chinese politicians this week and in various other multilateral and bilateral settings at a time when such occasions across political-strategic lines are declining. Those who understand the unexpected frankness between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin can explain how important interpersonal communication is in managing complex international conflicts and disagreements. As extensions of the dialogues at the top level, communications among businesses, academics and experts, and civil society leaders have in history played a unique role in sustaining peace and mitigating the impact of conflict.

Conflicts in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia Pacific continue and even escalate, and G20 countries and regional powers – including Australia – are increasingly splitting into different camps. As one expert observes, Li’s visit to Australia has a particular symbolic meaning for China, showing it still has friends among America’s allies. In the coming years when the international system continues to contract, all of the dialogues included in the Statement, if implemented, will be more relevant for managing expectations, signaling intentions, safeguarding human securities, and negotiating interests.

Fengshi Wu is an Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations at the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture.

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