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The Guardian - AU

The rhetorical heat might be coming out of the Australia-China relationship, but there’s no fundamental shift – yet

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong
Australia’s new foreign minister Penny Wong and prime minister Anthony Albanese, who confirmed a letter from Chinese premier Li Keqiang. Photograph: David Gray/Getty Images

There appears to be no immediate prospect of a substantial “reset” between China and Australia, despite the premier, Li Keqiang, sending a “congratulatory message” to the new prime minister, Anthony Albanese.

Confusion erupted briefly on Monday night because an early Chinese state media report said Li had “called” Albanese to congratulate him.

A phone call between leaders would have been a major development in the deeply strained relationship because Australia has said China has blocked calls at a ministerial and leader level since the beginning of 2020.

Australia has clearly been in China’s diplomatic deep freezer for a long time, but there was never an all-encompassing freeze on contact. All throughout, Chinese and Australian diplomats and officials have continued to speak with each other, even if just to convey each side’s displeasure with the other government’s actions. And the former Morrison government had repeatedly asked to resume talks with China’s leaders and ministers (so long as no preconditions were attached).

Alas, the Xinhua story was swiftly corrected to say: “Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday sent a congratulatory message to Anthony Albanese on his assumption of office as prime minister of the federal government of Australia.”

Albanese confirmed after the Quad meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday that he had received the letter, adding: “We will respond appropriately in time.”

It’s worth stepping through Li’s message in some detail, given the temptation to see this as an olive branch.

The first thing to observe is that the sentiments expressed in the message are consistent with months of diplomatic formulations expressed by Chinese officials, who have signalled that they are open to post-election talks to get the relationship on the “right track”. Even last week Chinese diplomatic sources told Guardian Australia and SBS News that they saw “a good opportunity” to ease tensions in the period after the election, regardless of the outcome.

Li said in Monday’s message that “the sound and stable development of China-Australia relations conforms to the fundamental interests and common aspirations of their people and is also conducive to peace, stability, development and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region”.

This has been a line Chinese officials have used for years. Even the “wolf warrior” foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said in June 2021 that China has always believed “that a sound and stable relationship serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples”.

In the message to Albanese, Li also said the Chinese side was “ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future, and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit, so as to promote the sound and steady growth of their comprehensive strategic partnership”.

This is almost identical to the statement made by China’s new ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, in February: “Taking the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between our two countries as an opportunity, China is willing to work with Australia to meet each other halfway, review the past and look into the future, adhere to the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and make joint efforts to push forward China-Australia relations along the right track.”

And it is at this point that we get to the difficulties and roadblocks.

One hard-to-reconcile issue stems from the different perspectives on the meaning of “mutual respect”.

In China’s view, that would include Australia not “interfering” or “meddling” in issues it sees as going to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It would clearly want Australia to stop the public condemnation of Beijing for the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and intensifying military, economic and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan. And it would clearly want Australia to treat China as a partner, not a security threat.

However, both sides of Australian politics have vowed to continue to speak up for Australian interests and values – and are concerned about China’s militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea. The new Australian government will continue to hold the position that China should stop ignoring the 2016 ruling of the arbitral tribunal that found against China’s claims. Additionally, Australia’s laws against foreign interference, its use of national security tests for foreign investment proposals, and its ban on Huawei in the 5G network are here to stay.

It is fair to say the ambassador’s comments in February that China was prepared to meet Australia halfway were greeted with a level of scepticism in Canberra, because that offer wasn’t accompanied by any tangible steps that Beijing might be willing to take to repair the relationship.

In Tokyo on Tuesday afternoon, Albanese pledged Australia’s ongoing support for the Quad grouping with the US, Japan and India, and signalled that he would step up the contest with China for influence in Pacific island nations. He stuck to his pre-election formulation on China being responsible for the relationship breakdown.

“It’s China that’s changed, not Australia,” Albanese said. He said there was no justification for China’s trade sanctions against Australian export sectors such as barley and wine, and urged Beijing to remove them.

Albanese was careful about Australia’s stance on a future military conflict over the status of Taiwan after Joe Biden made a forward-leaning statement the day before, with the new PM insisting that Australia continued to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.

While there may be a lowering of the temperature between China and Australia at a rhetorical level, it is not yet apparent that there will be a fundamental shift. The best that can be said is that there appears to be a window opening to higher-level dialogue.