Weeks of 6 to 19 December 2021

Let’s be friends

Wang Xining, Chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Canberra, speaking on 13 December at the opening of an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia:

“I find that our people have many things in common, such as giving priority to protecting life and health, preserving solidarity of community in face of crisis, creating opportunities for those we care and love, and many others.”

“There are so many common values that we share and present at this challenging juncture. I believe that there is no reason that Australian and Chinese people can’t be good friends.”

Quick take:

This was a remarkably upbeat speech. It was focused on shared interests, values, and experiences, and didn’t make any mention of the numerous points of tension and sources of frustration that typically feature prominently in Chinese government messaging on the Australia-China relationship. The speech even made the case for in-person meetings. Per the published version: “we need to meet in person and talk face-to-face, in order to deepen mutual understanding and forge stronger bond”. That immediately made me wonder whether Chargé d’affaires Wang thinks it’s time for Australian and Chinese ministers to meet. But these comments about face-to-face meetings could have just as easily been a reference to Chargé d’affaires Wang’s frustration with, in his own words, the “long and tedious lock-down in ACT”.

Chargé d’affaires Wang also expressed what he described as the common hope that “friendly connection and rapport between our peoples will return to normal”. To be sure, even when expressed by a Chinese government official, this kind of aspiration doesn’t signal that an improvement in bilateral relations is in the offing. Throughout the prolonged recent downturn in the Australia-China relationship, Beijing has expressed various versions of the hope that bilateral ties will improve. But, of course, on the proviso that Canberra changes its ways, thereby allowing relations to get back on track. So, Chargé d’affaires Wang’s wish for a friendly relationship is entirely consistent with Beijing waiting for Canberra to align its policies more closely with China’s interests.

The speech’s unusually warm tone might be partially explained by the context of cultural diplomacy. Chargé d’affaires Wang’s remarks lauded an exhibition that is part of a longstanding cultural exchange program between the National Museum of Australia and the National Art Museum of China. Even at a time of fractious bilateral relations, it stands to reason that a relatively uncontentious cultural initiative would be an unproductive backdrop for sharp political and policy points. The Chinese government also has many other avenues for delivering those less-friendly messages. And per recent Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conferences (especially here and here), Beijing is still making good use of those mechanisms to chastise Canberra. Although Chargé d’affaires Wang’s tone paints a positive picture, the overwhelming weight of public messaging doesn’t suggest an optimistic outlook for the Australia-China relationship as 2021 draws to a close.

The G7 on economic coercion

From the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ Meeting Chair’s Statement:

“We also expressed our concern about coercive economic policies.”

Quick take:

As I’ve highlight previously (see herehere, and here), Australia has been involved in a string of bilateral statements since late 2020 that have raised concerns about economic coercion. As well as old friends such as Japan, New Zealand, and the United States, this group includes regional partners and emerging powers such as India, Vietnam, and Malaysia. But unlike this recent G7 Chair’s Statement, the bulk of these instances of bilateral messaging have not singled out a particular country and have instead raised general concerns about economic coercion. (The most notable exception being US-Australian diplomatic messaging on economic coercion, which is at times explicitly framed as being about China.) The context of these bilateral statements—China’s internationally renowned and explicitly coercive economic pressure campaign against Australia—means that most audiences would fully understand that Beijing’s trade restrictions are at issue. But given that some of the partners that have joined these bilateral statements with Australia have experienced economic coercion at the hands of other countries, these statements need not be interpreted as being narrowly focussed on China.

By contrast, the G7 Chair’s Statement was explicitly aimed at China. Although the sentence about economic coercion didn’t mention China by name, it came in the middle of a paragraph devoted to the G7’s misgivings about a range of elements of China’s behaviour. No other country appeared to be an object of concern in this part of the statement. This framing of the issue of economic coercion by reference to China specifically follows the format of the G7’s previous statement on economic coercion in May this year. A range of tough questions can be asked about how representative and fit for purpose the G7 might be considering the shifting global centre of power away from the North Atlantic and towards the Indo-Pacific. But regardless, the explicitness of the G7’s criticism of China’s economic coercion is at least one measure of the diplomatic value for Australia of involvement in this grouping. Of course, one could plausibly argue that these kinds of criticisms won’t change China’s behaviour towards Australia. But to the extent that Canberra seeks to impose reputational costs on Beijing, these G7 concerns are a diplomatic win for Australia, albeit an incremental one.

Relatedly, the recent Joint Statement on the Australia-Republic of Korea Comprehensive Strategic Partnership provides a noteworthy counterpoint to the explicitness of the G7 Chair’s Statement. Not only did that Joint Statement not reference China specifically, but it did not even mention economic coercion by name. It instead opted for this—presumably purposefully ambiguous—formulation: “They [the leaders] expressed their commitment to open, inclusive, sustainable and transparent market economy principles and the rules-based international trading system that should not be compromised by the misuse of economic policies and measures in ways that cause economic harm.” Just as this could plausibly be interpretated in Beijing as an opaque criticism of its coercive economic practices against Australia, it could equally be viewed in Tokyo as an indirect objection to its trade restrictions against South Korea. Maybe such ambiguity is precisely what a joint diplomatic win for Canberra and Seoul looks like? Sometimes you can say more by not saying anything specific.

For reference, here’s the updated working tally of states/multilateral groupings that have joined Australia and raised explicit concerns about economic coercion:

  • Australia-Japan; 17 November 2020; Leader; Bilateral
  • G7; 5 May 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs and development); Multilateral
  • Australia-United States; 13 May 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs); Bilateral [NB from joint press conference between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Marise Payne.]
  • Australia-New Zealand; 31 May 2021; Leader; Bilateral
  • Australia-Japan; 9 June 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-United States; 21 July 2021; Ministerial (trade); Bilateral
  • Australia-France; 30 August 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-India; 11 September 2021; Ministerial (2+2 foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-United States; 16 September 2021; Ministerial (2+2 ASUMIN – foreign affairs and defence); Bilateral
  • Australia-New Zealand; 20 September 2021; Ministerial (trade); Bilateral
  • Australia-Vietnam; 3 November 2021; Leader; Bilateral
  • Australia-Malaysia; 9 November 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs); Bilateral
  • G7; 12 December 2021; Ministerial (foreign affairs and development); Multilateral

Talk again in 2022

This is the last edition of Beijing to Canberra and Back for 2021. After what feels like an especially long and tumultuous year, the newsletter will take an extended break during the Australian summer. All going well, it’ll return to your inboxes towards the end of January 2022. Details are still TBC, but the newsletter will hopefully re-emerge from this hiatus with a companion website featuring some new empirical data from an ongoing research project on the history and trajectory of the Australia-China relationship.

On a personal level, thank you for reading and spreading the word these past six months. Writing about the Australia-China relationship often pulls you into ethically and analytically ambiguous terrain in which interests clash with values and the known unknowns outnumber the known knowns. (And that’s before you even start speculating about the unknown unknowns.) But despite this often messy collision of political, ideological, economic, and social forces, the bilateral relationship remains (at least to my biased mind) one of the most fascinating and important areas for foreign policy analysis.

Notwithstanding the often-grim topics covered, writing Beijing to Canberra and Back has been a genuine pleasure and a useful research exercise for me. If reading it has been a fraction as enjoyable or helpful for you, I’ll call it a win. Stay safe, and I hope that the New Year brings long-overdue rest and respite.