Time to shift the narrative on China

By Colin Heseltine, Former Australian Diplomat

Reaction to the Bali meeting between Penny Wong and Wang Yi shows how hard it is to achieve a balanced and objective narrative about the Australia-China relationship – and how important it is we do, writes Colin Heseltine.

No one foresaw a quick improvement in Australia-China relations under the Albanese government. But it was assumed that at least the hostile rhetoric that marked the relationship in recent years would be toned down.

This, in turn, it was hoped by many might begin a gradual process leading to a more normal and constructive relationship with our major trading partner, notwithstanding the many strategic challenges China poses to Australia’s interests in the region.

However public and media reactions to the recent meeting in Bali between foreign ministers Penny Wong and Wang Yi have demonstrated how difficult this will be to achieve in the current febrile atmosphere of negativism towards China.

A recent Lowy Institute poll indicated that 63 per cent of Australians regard China as more of a security threat than as an economic partner compared with 15 per cent in 2015, while 75 per cent believe China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.

As Hugh White noted in his recent Quarterly Essay, we need to build a more balanced and realistic view of China as one of the steps to get the relationship back on some sort of track: “Once a rival or a threat is identified, it becomes all too easy to keep talking it up, and harder and harder to regain a sense of proportion.”

And so, we see this with the public reaction in Australia to the Chinese statement on the Bali meeting.

In her own statement, Penny Wong wisely and professionally issued a brief summary of the issues discussed, noting that “we have our differences, but it is in both our countries’ interests for the relationship to be stabilized”. Importantly, she added that the Australian Government “will always seek to resolve issues calmly…and in accordance with our national interests”. Unfortunately, this sensible approach was not taken up by media and other commentators.

Wong and Yi elbow bump
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meet on the sidelines of the recent G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Bali, Indonesia - July 8, 2022.

The statement on the Bali meeting released by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was longer, and contained more detail. It included some quite positive points such as “China is ready to re-examine, recalibrate, and reinvigorate bilateral ties in the spirit of mutual respect, and strive to bring bilateral relations back on the right track”. This is quite a departure from the “wolf warrior” language emanating from the Foreign Ministry in recent years. The statement also noted that “China values the fact that the new Australian government has reaffirmed its commitment to …. the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries and appreciates Australia’s adherence to the one-China principle”. This was also a far cry from wolf warrior diplomatic language and was clearly intended as positive gesture towards the Albanese government.

But most of this has been ignored in the media’s knee-jerk reaction to the Chinese statement. Rather, the focus has been on Wang Yi’s comment that the root cause of difficulties in the bilateral relationship in recent years was the previous government insistence on regarding China as a threat with “a series of irresponsible words and deeds against China”.

The statement then noted that China “hopes” Australia will stick to regarding China as a partner rather than as a rival, will stick to seeking common ground while reserving differences, stick to not targeting any third party or being controlled by any third party (a reference to China’s perception that Australia’s China policy is too influenced by the United States), and stick to building positive and pragmatic social foundations and public support.

In the context of China’s shrill approach to Australia in recent years, these “hopes” were unexceptional and plainly stated. And yet, in the current atmosphere towards China, many in the media and some commentators, chose to characterize these four hopes as “demands”, adding to the fourteen grievances handed by Chinese embassy officials to a media representative in 2020 that were also characterized by many as demands. Ham-fisted diplomacy to be sure, but they were hardly demands on the Australian government.

It was also clumsy for the Chinese Foreign Ministry to try to play off the current Australian government’s approach to China against that of its predecessor, thus reflecting a poor understanding of current Australian politics and the widespread negative sentiment towards the Chinese government among the Australian public. Thus, the Prime Minister felt obliged to state that Australia does not respond to demands (even non-existent ones, it seems).

This latest incident demonstrates how difficult it will be to establish a more balanced and objective narrative about China’s global and regional role. Clearly there are those who have no interest in achieving such a balance and who will continue to talk up the China threat. But if Foreign Minister Wong’s words about seeking to resolve issues calmly in accordance with our national interests are to be implemented, then the narrative must change.

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

Banner image: Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the conclusion of the G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Bali, Indonesia - July 8, 2022. Credit: Senator Penny Wong, @SenatorWong, Twitter.