Iit was the briefest of meetings, but when Xi Jinping met Anthony Albanese on the sidelines of the g20 rally in Bali was the first time China’s supreme leader had met an Australian prime minister one-on-one since 2016. It also signaled the drawing of a line under two years of extreme Chinese intimidation during which Australia was the target of the most punitive trade measures China has launched against any country. In Bali, Mr Xi at least unlocked the kennel and left the door open for the abused Aussie dog.
Few in Canberra expect China to rush to lift its embargoes on $20 billion a year worth of barley, beef, coal, lobster, wine and more. But bilateral communications, including military, could resume. It’s a victory. Australia and China better talk, Mr Albanese said – a line he has repeated often since taking office as the head of a centre-left government in May.
For his part, Xi said it was in the “fundamental interests” of both sides to develop their relationship. So true; that’s why China’s fall in the dive was so extraordinary. It was only eight years ago that Mr Xi addressed parliament in Canberra. A free trade agreement has been signed. Mr Xi boasted of having visited every Australian state. Still, China was quick to harbor grievances over Australian actions, including speaking out about Chinese activities in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea and blocking China’s Huawei from critical telecoms infrastructure. When Mr Albanese’s Tory predecessor Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins of covid-19, pesky little Australia was seen in Beijing as having offended the cosmic order. In November 2020, accompanying its import bans, China produced a list of 14 grievances and demanded that Australia “correct” its behavior.
Mr Morrison ignored the request and took China to the wto on his barley and wine bans. Yet China gave in. This was consistent with Mr. Xi’s broader charm offensive in Bali. And no doubt the advent of Mr Albanese, a less abrasive prime minister, covered the descent. At bottom, however, Australia’s refusal to bow meant that the Chinese approach was simply not working. It’s a lesson, says Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister from 2015 to 2018, universally applicable to victims of bullying: “Hang on.”
Australia did it and emerged stronger, although China is by far its most important trading partner. It helps that China is still dependent on Australian iron ore and gas. Indeed, the value of Australian exports to China is higher today than before the bans. At the same time, Australia has extended its export bets by seeking new markets. In the past, 42% of its exports went to China, today less than 30%.
Some have certainly suffered a lot. Tasmanian fishermen’s incomes have halved. About 1,000 wine companies went bankrupt. But the government managed to persuade companies that giving in to Chinese demands would mean the bully would come back for more. Most Australians approve of the government’s approach.
Australia is now better informed of the Chinese assertion and more united in guarding against it, perhaps especially in defence. Stabilizing Australia’s relationship with China, Defense Minister Richard Marles recently said, “does not mean that we will not also maintain a clear vision of our security”.
Not all of Australia’s experience applies to others facing a spell in the pound (Canada, Japan, Norway and South Korea have all been tracked at one point or another). It is also too early to declare this a definitive Australian victory. China has not yet lifted its embargoes and the security situation in Asia remains tense. Yet the Australian example offers important lessons.
Against Chinese coercion, affirm international standards. And proceed calmly and steadily. Some of the anti-China demagogy of the Morrison government was unnecessarily incendiary and alarming to Australian citizens of Chinese descent. Mr. Albanese was rewarded for his more moderate approach. This made China’s stubbornness all the more unreasonable. “If the other side seems more rushed than you, that’s usually advantageous,” says an Australian official.
Also, remember that commercial addiction works both ways. When it comes to ordinances of self-denial, China is not committed to wearing the hair shirt. Before long, Australian lobster could be back on Beijing banquet tables.■
Read more from Banyan, our columnist on Asia:
Can Japan make up for America’s lead-eared Asian diplomacy? (November 17)
The political crisis in Pakistan is also a dilemma for its top brass (10 November)
When a disaster shakes a country, political leaders are in danger (November 3)