In March, two Australian newspapers used their front pages to warn that the country “must prepare” for the threat of war with China – headlines that former prime minister Paul Keating called “the most egregious and provocative news presentation of any newspaper I have witnessed in over 50 years of active public life”.
This came after relations between the two countries had already plummeted during Scott Morrison’s term as prime minister from 2018-22, when his tough words on Covid-19 and enactment of laws that targeted Beijing led the latter to hit back by restricting imports of a range of Australian goods.
What a difference a few months make.
Current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s four-day “rapprochement” tour of China, which concluded on Tuesday, has been such a success that Chinese Premier Li Qiang referred to a video of Mr Albanese going for a run during his visit by telling him “people were saying that we have a handsome boy coming from Australia”.
Mr Li didn’t stop there. Given this was their fourth meeting, he added: “Chinese people say at the first meeting, we are new acquaintances and the second time, we’re familiar with each other, and on the third meeting, we are old friends.”
Mr Albanese and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong struck all the right notes with a series of cheery-faced social media posts while they were in China.
On Monday, Ms Wong posted that then prime minister Gough Whitlam’s visit in 1973 “laid the groundwork for the diplomatic ties that link the people of Australia and China together to this day. Today the Prime Minister and I retraced his steps with a visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing”.
Choosing the 50th anniversary of Mr Whitlam’s diplomatic trip – the first by an Australian leader – to reset the relationship was a masterstroke. For as Chinese President Xi Jinping told Mr Albanese during their hour-long meeting on Monday, “In China, we often say that when drinking water, we should not forget those who dug the well. The Chinese people will not forget Prime Minister Whitlam for digging the well for us.”
Those early diplomatic openings for the People’s Republic are truly never forgotten. So important are they that in Malaysia, where I live, one of the first acts of every new Chinese ambassador was to pay their respects to the widow of Tun Abdul Razak, the leader who established formal relations with China in 1974 – and she outlived her husband by 44 years before her death in 2020.
So the timing was perfect. Mr Albanese was polite and warm, but no pushover either. Before meeting Mr Xi, he told reporters: “We need to co-operate with China where we can, disagree where we must, and engage in our national interest.”
According to state broadcaster CCTV, Mr Xi then told his counterpart that the two countries had “no fundamental conflict of interests” and could “become mutually trusting and mutually successful partners”. It was “a new starting point”, he said.
Given that trade between the two countries was not far off $300 billion last year, it suits both to turn the page. As Mr Albanese said: “Both Australia and China benefit from co-operation and dialogue.”
This new approach is very welcome. But it also sends two important signals.
The first is that it shows that belonging to organisations such as the Quad – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with India, Japan and the US – and Aukus – the trilateral security partnership with the UK and US – does not have to mean being anti-China.
Beijing understandably views both as aiming to contain its rise in the Asia-Pacific, and if China hawks are candid, they will concede they hope that is precisely what the Quad and Aukus will do. The jolly smiles on display in Beijing, which looked genuine and unforced, make it clear, however, that “win-win co-operation” is the priority for Australia’s current leadership.
The more other countries can follow suit and resist the exhortations to “take sides” in a totally unnecessary attempt to divide the world, the better.
The second signal concerns Australia’s place in Asia.
How much the country wants to be part of the continent, and to what extent it can do so, are questions I’ve discussed with Australian diplomats and foreign policy experts. Perhaps naturally, the greatest enthusiasm comes from those most focussed on South-East and East Asia. They view the idea that their country should be the US’s “deputy sheriff” in the region as anachronistic.
In terms of engagement and deepening knowledge, there is much work to be done at home.
A recent report by four Australian university professors noted: “In 1992, there were 22 Australian universities teaching Indonesian. By 2022, this number was down to 12. There has also been a huge drop in students studying Indonesian to the end of high school.” And this is the official language of Australia’s closest neighbour in Asia.
There is also the question of how welcome a predominantly white, self-consciously western country would be. When the then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed an East Asia Economic Caucus in 1997, for instance, it was dubbed a “caucus without Caucasians” as it deliberately excluded Australia and New Zealand.
The idea never got off the ground, and times have changed. So has Australia.
Ms Wong is clearly well qualified for the job; but it doesn’t hurt her country’s image in the region that she is half Malaysian Chinese. And the public faces of Australia are likely to feature far more people of fully or partly Asian descent in the future. This is because while in 1996, the percentage of Australians who were born in Asia was 5 per cent, in the 2021 census, 17.4 per cent of the population identified as having Asian ancestry.
Demographic trends may end up answering the question of where Australia sees itself in the world.
Either way, Mr Albanese’s trip to China has been one of the rare instances of good news of late. More “friendship”, which in Beijing Mr Albanese said was “certainly something that I feel and I’m sure will continue to develop in the future”, is something we could all do with much more of right now.