Inside Story

Scaling the Great Wall

Anthony Albanese’s visit to China late this week comes almost exactly fifty years after Gough Whitlam’s pioneering trip

Mark Baker 30 October 2023 2403 words

Step by step: prime minister Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong (left, centre) meeting with China’s premier Li Qiang during last month’s ASEAN Summit in Jakarta. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Sir Frederic Eggleston, Australia’s first envoy to China, was fond of the sedan chair. The Egg, as he was known to his staff, found being carried aloft on a palanquin by two Chinese porters was the perfect way to navigate the hilly terrain of Chungking (Chongqing) after he arrived in the wartime capital in central China in 1941.

The first Australian legation was a modest double-storey building on Goose Ridge Hill, in the heart of the city, not far from the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. The building is still there today, dwarfed by the forest of high-rise towers of what claims to be the world’s biggest city, its dazzling skyline a bold rival to Manhattan’s.

Australia’s initial diplomatic engagement with China came to an abrupt end with the communist victory in 1949. It wouldn’t resume for another quarter-century after a revolution of sorts in Australia swept away a generation of conservatism under Sir Robert Menzies and his successors.

Gough Whitlam had advocated diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China as early as 1954. It became Labor policy the following year. But it wasn’t until Whitlam’s election victory in 1972 that his vision became a reality.

Fifty years ago this week, Whitlam became the first Australian prime minister to visit the People’s Republic. A few days later, an RAAF Hercules landed in Beijing carrying a novel gift to mark the historic occasion — Saber Bogong, a 567-kilogram Murray Grey stud bull. Australia’s Beijing embassy had opened in January 1973 and the first resident Australian journalists soon followed. It would be another five years before the Americans turned up.

Whitlam’s maverick diplomacy — at the same time as the Nixon administration was taking its first halting steps towards normalising relations with China — set Australia apart. We had been a firm and unequivocal ally of the United States since the second world war but we were prepared to make our own way in the region and the world — a fact that impressed the Chinese leadership and helped secure the foundations of a flourishing trade relationship that has underwritten Australia’s prosperity for half a century.

When he arrives in Beijing next weekend prime minister Anthony Albanese will find a city and a country largely unrecognisable from those Whitlam visited and receive a welcome that’s likely to be far less effusive if not overtly constrained.

Relations between China and Australia are slowly improving after reaching a nadir under the former government. The Chinese were infuriated in April 2020 when Scott Morrison demanded an independent international investigation with “weapons inspector powers” to reveal the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic. Soon after, they imposed a crippling raft of sanctions on Australian coal, barley, meat, cotton, lobster, timber and wine. The measures wiped out an estimated $20 billion in Australian exports.

The tensions worsened after ASIO agents staged early-morning raids in June 2020 on the Sydney homes of three Chinese journalists, including the bureau chief of the Xinhua news agency, alarming their families and seizing computers and documents — raids for which no official explanation has ever been given. A few weeks later, Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist working for Chinese television was detained and accused of illegally sending state secrets abroad. In early September, the ABC and Australian Financial Review correspondents sought diplomatic sanctuary, later fleeing the country after police warned they were to be interviewed regarding a “national security case.” A period of “wolf warrior diplomacy” during which Chinese critics were aggressively targeted and sometimes physically abused inflamed the hostility.

Since the Albanese government was elected early last year a gradual thaw in the relationship has seen the lifting or promised lifting of about three-quarters of the trade restrictions and a resumption of high-level government contacts. Cheng Lei was released and reunited with her family in Melbourne earlier this month, but no Australian journalists have yet returned to live in China. Australian writer and activist Yang Hengjun, who was arrested in August 2019 and accused of espionage, remains in prison with his health reported to be deteriorating.

While there are strong expectations of further improvement in the relationship as a consequence of Albanese’s visit to Beijing and Shanghai, it appears highly unlikely that it will return to anything resembling the détente of the 1970s and 1980s in the near future, if ever. And that is due mostly to a hardening of attitudes in Canberra.

The Australian government’s position, first enunciated by foreign minister Penny Wong, and still the script closely followed by senior Australian officials, is that while we seek to rebuild a cordial and constructive relationship with China it can’t be as close as it once was because of growing cybersecurity threats from Beijing, its more aggressive posture on Taiwan and the South China Sea and its efforts to expand its influence in the South Pacific.

During his state visit to the United States last week, Albanese went further in defining his government’s view of a growing divergence driven by China’s more assertive global posture. “China has been explicit: it does not see itself as a status quo power,” he told a gathering at the State Department attended by US vice-president Kamala Harris and secretary of state Antony Blinken. “It seeks a region and a world that is much more accommodating of its values and interests.”

A day earlier, an avuncular Joe Biden counselled his youngish guest that he needed to “trust but verify” the responses in his meeting next week with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Albanese responded to this somewhat patronising advice by insisting that he was “clear-eyed” about the challenge Australia faced: “We’re two nations with very different histories, values and political systems. Australia will always look to cooperate with China where we can, but we will disagree where we must, but continue to engage in our national interest. Our approach has been patient, calibrated and deliberate, and that will continue when I visit Beijing and Shanghai.”

It won’t be lost on the Chinese leadership that Albanese has chosen to visit them straight after a state visit to Washington. While the ANZUS alliance has been a fact of life in Australia–China relations since the beginning, it has never been as bluntly inserted into the bilateral equation as it has been since Australia ratified its new AUKUS partnership with the United States and Britain.

The timing of the Washington and Beijing visits will feed the Chinese view that Australia remains an unquestioning acolyte in America’s global reach, as it was in Vietnam and Iraq. “Australia’s political situation is not stable. They are influenced too much by the US and others,” Liu Zhiqin, a senior fellow at Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute, told a group of visiting Australian journalists in Beijing last week. “It sometimes shows that they don’t have their own independent ideas. Sometimes, in my opinion, Australians behave like a fellow following the big brother.”

For years Western leaders recited the mantra that their defence and economic policies were never designed to “contain” China or thwart its inevitable emergence as a global economic and military superpower. Now that pretence has been abandoned. America is energetically pursuing efforts to “decouple” its economy from interdependence with China and to thwart China’s efforts to become self-sufficient in strategically critical industries. The AUKUS pact — along with the nascent Quad partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia — is seen in China as part of an escalating effort to deny the nation its hard-earned place in the front row on the global stage.

Any Australian pretence that buying long-range nuclear-powered submarines from the United States under AUKUS is anything but a challenge to China was laid bare when deputy prime minister Richard Marles told a security forum in South Korea last week that if a war broke out over China’s determination to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, Australia would be in it. While mouthing the usual lines about the need for a peaceful solution, Marles added: “The consequences of a US–China conflict over Taiwan are so grave that we cannot be passive bystanders.” It sounded like an echo of Peter Dutton, his belligerent predecessor as defence minister, who declared in 2021 that in a war over Taiwan it “would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action.”

Chinese analysts scoff at the view that China’s military build-up poses any kind of threat to Australia. “China harbours no ambition at all in anything remotely close to Australia,” Renmin University’s Gong Jiong told the Australian journalists. “Why is it that politicians in Australia are even talking about China representing a security risk to Australia? That is something hard to accept and understand.” He says China’s increased engagement in the South Pacific was designed to counter Taiwanese influence in the region rather than challenge Australia.

Prominent Chinese also note the absurdity at the heart of Australia’s decision to spend an eye-watering $365 billion to buy a few hulking American nuclear-powered submarines on the grounds that they are essential to protect international trade routes vital to our economy. When a third of all Australian exports are sold to China and 90 per cent of Australian merchandise imports come from China, what exactly is the danger that requires us to give American and British industry a mortgage over the Australian defence budget from here to eternity?

While Marles was war-gaming in Seoul last week, ASIO chief Mike Burgess was joining his “Five Eyes” intelligence colleagues at a gathering in California to denounce the escalating cybersecurity threat posed by China. “The Chinese government are engaged in the most sustained, sophisticated and scaled theft of intellectual property and expertise in human history,” Burgess declared. Yet if the cyber-security threat from China is indeed far worse than ever before, is it perhaps simply that they are getting much better at strategic and commercial espionage and we are finding it harder to keep up with countermeasures? In the spying games that all nations play, are we struggling to keep up?

The more measured and less confrontational diplomacy pursued by the Albanese government has undoubtedly been crucial to stabilising the China–Australia relationship after years of upheaval, but China has good reasons of its own to seek a return to greater harmony.

The Chinese economy is facing a range of serious challenges that make continued friction with the West, and particularly with one of its most important trading partners, an unhelpful distraction. Chinese growth between July and September slowed to 4.9 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent in the previous quarter. A crisis in its property sector has seen several major construction companies face collapse with hundreds of billions of dollars in debts. And China’s unemployment is rising, with the jobless rate for sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds climbing to more than 20 per cent.

Despite the recent economic turmoil, the Chinese economy is still expected to finish the year with growth of between 5 and 6 per cent — well below the boom years of the past but still a creditable performance. And despite the headwinds, China’s modernisation remains breathtaking. Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing are bustling and glamorous modern cities, linked to the rest of the country by the world’s biggest fast rail network. In this month’s glorious autumn weather, restaurants, shopping malls and parks are thronged with well-dressed, well-fed and obviously happy people. If the Communist Party’s contract with the people was to end the abject poverty that blighted most of the country before the revolution, it has delivered in spades.

Last week China celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s signature global engagement policy which has driven US$1500 billion in new development projects around the world. While the BRI has been widely criticised outside China for saddling many developing nations with crippling debts, building excessively extravagant infrastructure and causing widespread environmental degradation, many of the 150 participating nations have embraced China’s global leadership, opened lucrative new markets for Chinese exports, and provided access to new sources of oil, gas and minerals for Beijing.

Washington’s mostly unspoken distaste for the BRI stems from a perception that it is a crude device to extend China’s political influence at the expense of the United States and its allies, not least in the South Pacific. At a joint media conference with Albanese at the White House last week, President Biden derided the BRI as a “debt noose” for most countries that had signed on — then offered Xi Jinping the flattery of imitation by declaring that the G7 nations were working on their own version of the scheme: “His Belt and Road Initiative, well, we’re going to compete on that.”

Among the guests of honour at the BRI celebrations in Beijing were Russian president Vladimir Putin and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, whose warm embrace of Putin outraged his fellow European leaders. What escaped most media attention was the fact that among the other guests were president Joko Widodo of Indonesia and prime minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea. In a week when Australia was preoccupied with its American alliance, the leaders of the two countries that are our nearest neighbours were building stronger partnerships with China.

In recent days, Albanese has mused about the potential for Australia to build a role as an intermediary in the increasingly volatile relationship between Washington and Beijing. “I think both China and the United States probably see Australia as playing a role. We are a middle power,” he told journalists. “My concern with the relationship between the United States and China is that there has been good engagement at the diplomatic level… but military to military, there is still a lack of engagement. We need to build guardrails.”

That might also be an opportunity to rebuild some of the respect for Australia as an American ally with an independent worldview that prevailed through the years of the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke governments. “China wants to see a very independent, strategic and autonomous Australia,” says Zhou Rong, another senior fellow at Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute. “You don’t need to depend on other countries. You are a European Asian country or you are a white Asian country, so you can function as a bridge between Asia and America — North America — and Europe.” •