China: the road ahead

By Asialink
at the University of Melbourne

When Asialink asked a dozen of Australia’s leading China analysts at the start of the federal election campaign to offer their thoughts on how to navigate the fraught Sino-Australian relationship, we searched for an appropriate name.

We landed on “The Road Ahead” – capturing the notion of an uncertain journey with an unknown destination. At the time, it was hard to see the road leading to anything other than ruin.

If there was any doubt about the strength of the link between international and domestic politics, it was dispelled by the election on Saturday of Anthony Albanese and the speed with which China ended more than two years of silence in high-level contacts.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quickly sent Albanese a letter of congratulations as the new Prime Minister was preparing to fly to Tokyo for a meeting of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Labor spent the election campaign playing down differences with the Coalition on national security and China. And while there is considerable continuity in the polices the new government promises on both, it has left room for adjustment. Penny Wong, the Foreign Minister, is committed to a review of how Australia conducts the China relationship.

Suddenly, there is a glimmer of hope that the kind of dialogue that all of Australia’s close allies routinely conduct with China can resume. But Australia will be looking for tangible proof that Beijing wants a better relationship.

One measure of that will be whether it takes steps to wind back or end trade sanctions without using them as a bargaining chip. A question for the pundits to examine will be whether China’s diplomatic and trade embargo was against the Morrison government or against Australia.

Either way, one of the big challenges for the Albanese government will be to craft a whole-of-government strategy for Australia’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific that has effective management of China relations at its heart.

The articles produced by China experts for this series are not a blueprint for a strategy, but they do provide useful guidance on some of the issues and solutions the Labor government should consider as it contemplates one. We commend this thought-provoking collection to readers.

The Road Ahead on China might not be getting any easier to travel, but it now at least looks strewn with some possibility.

Donald Greenlees, editor