Albanese’s Trip to China: A Question of When Not If

By Colin Heseltine, Former Australian Diplomat

The quiet diplomacy to revive Australia-China relations received a boost when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month visited Beijing. Colin Heseltine assesses the impact on the prospects of Anthony Albanese making his own first trip to China as PM.

The timing of a visit to China by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is a topic of great speculation and anticipation.  That Albanese will go to Beijing at some point – possibly late this year – seems likely.

But the PM admits to being “conscious” of “domestic concerns” in setting a time for the visit.  Judging by his public statements, those concerns include the “removal of any impediments to trade” and the release of Australians in custody.

To the extent that Australia’s relations with China are influenced by the state of United States-China relations, US Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to Beijing in mid-June makes the prospect of an Albanese visit to China this year more likely. Blinken’s visit did not achieve any breakthroughs on key issues.  It wasn’t expected to. But the visit went smoothly, if a little frosty at times, and should act as a break of some sorts on the continuing deterioration in US-China relations. Both sides had recognised that bilateral relations had been at their lowest point in decades. Both sides clearly wanted to signal to the rest of the world that they were seeking a de-escalation.

This doesn’t mean of course that US-China relations will significantly improve.  Structural problems in their relationship remain and are substantial. Statements by both sides after the visit indicate that no progress was made on any of these during the visit. The key issues remain China’s actions around Taiwan and the South China Sea, US bans on high-level technology exports to China, and human rights. Blinken did reaffirm US support for the one-China policy and opposition to Taiwan independence and stressed that the US was pursuing de-risking of its economic relations, not de-coupling. The US defines de-risking as: securing resilient supply chains for critical technologies; protecting the most advanced technologies with military applications; and investing in the US’s own industrial capacity in critical areas of technology.  China clearly doesn’t accept this approach.

Blinken was unable to secure Chinese agreement to reestablishing military crisis communications links. Given the severing of military exchanges in recent years, and the potential for military crises to occur in the East and South China Seas, this was a disappointment.

Blinken’s 35-minute meeting with Xi Jinping was relatively short but important.  Had it not happened, only days after Xi met Bill Gates, it would have been a real snub and a bad sign. The meeting was apparently congenial with both Xi and Blinken stressing the need for more diplomacy.  The meeting was carefully choreographed by the Chinese to signal that Blinken was not meeting Xi on an equal footing. Unlike the usual practice in which Xi meets foreign visitors in the classic horse-shoe configuration, which implies some level of equality between the interlocutors, this time Xi sat at the head of a table with Blinken and the Chinese officials sitting opposite one another in positions signaling lower status.  This accorded with China’s characterisation of the visit as one sought by the US as a supplicant. A minor point perhaps, but illustrative of how China seeks to demonstrate the high ground in its relations with the US.

This move to arrest the downturn in US-China relations is an encouraging development for Australia and will make Albanese’s decision to visit Beijing a little less vexed when the time comes.  Whatever the Australian government might say about Australia having an independent foreign policy, China sees us as following the US lead.  Thus, bad relations between the US and China will have an impact on how China views Australia. Conversely, better US-China relations will have some positive flow-on effect on how China views relations with us. This is a fact of life in alliance and big power relationships.

A slowdown in the deterioration of US-China relations, while helpful, does not remove all impediments to a more stabilised Australia-China relationship. As noted, there are significant bilateral issues unrelated to external factors that will need to be addressed to reduce the domestic political complications around a prime ministerial visit. They continued detention of Australian citizens, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, and the continuing Chinese sanctions on certain Australian exports. For the Prime Minister to visit China and not achieve some demonstrable progress on these issues would be difficult for him to sell at home.  On the positive side, some trade sanctions are already being lifted and further progress here shouldn’t be difficult for the Chinese government in the lead-up to an Albanese visit.

However, the cases of the two detained Australians, without adequate information about the charges they face, are apparently more difficult for the Chinese government because, it claims, they involve matters of state security. More so than trade sanctions, these issues, have a personal and emotional character that strike a chord among many Australians. Without more information about their situation, and without them at least having access to their families, this will remain a difficult issue in the way of a successful Albanese visit to China.

Colin Heseltine is senior adviser to Asialink, the University of Melbourne. He was twice deputy head of mission in the Australian embassy in Beijing (1982-85 and 1988-92), head of Australia's representative office in Taiwan (1992-97), and Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (2001-05).

Image: @SpokespersonCHN