ANALYSIS: The Albanese Government’s ‘Patient, Calibrated’ Approach to Australia-China Relations

Li Qiang’s visit has, for the most part, been notable for shedding minimal light and generating no heat.
ANALYSIS: The Albanese Government’s ‘Patient, Calibrated’ Approach to Australia-China Relations
Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) shakes hands with the CCP Premier Li Qiang at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia on June 17, 2024. (Mick Tsikas/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
News Analysis

If it wasn’t for the Uyghur, Falun Gong, Tibetan, and other protesters visible at every engagement CCP Premier Li Qiang attended in Australia, it would almost appear there were no points of contention.

Certainly, speeches by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton didn’t veer into anything remotely controversial, and neither chose to be critical in any statements to the media.

The prime minister repeated his well-worn mantra: “We will cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, but engage in our national interest.”

Mr. Dutton, in his speech at the lunch held at Parliament to honour Mr. Li, did just that. The opposition leader welcomed Mr. Li and his delegation as “dear friends and guests” and expressed his “hope [that] the tensions of recent years can ameliorate.”

What was billed as a “joint press conference”—briefly raising hopes that Mr. Li might answer reporters’ questions—was, in fact, just a speech from each leader, with both promptly leaving the room afterwards.

Further, far from being open to the press, Beijing officials tried to block Sky News Australia journalist Cheng Lei from being caught in a shot with the premier in the background.

Ms. Cheng was released last year from a Chinese prison. That led to the spectacle of officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet trying to block the blockers.

At the press conference, after the formal lunch but with Beijing’s envoy nowhere in sight, Mr. Albanese said he did not see the incident involving Ms. Lei and so didn’t condemn it.

He simply remarked that, “It’s important that people be allowed to participate fully, and that’s what should happen, here or anywhere else in Australia.”

‘Dialogue Is How We Manage Differences’: Prime Minister

Mr. Albanese characterised Australia’s approach as “patient, calibrated, and deliberate.”

He said he had raised “the full range of Australia’s interests” during his meeting with the premier, because “dialogue is how we manage differences.”

In response to journalists’ questions, he confirmed that he canvassed the issue of foreign interference and said he'd told Mr. Li it wasn’t acceptable in Australia’s political system.

When asked if he trusted Beijing’s leadership to follow through on any commitments, he avoided answering, saying only that “we put forward our view. And I must say that the premier also puts forward his view.”

A question asking him to characterise the response of Beijing’s representatives to Australia’s concerns—“Is it a polite yes or a polite disagreement with our beliefs?”—was given similar treatment.

He did, however, say the two leaders had spoken about “improving military-to-military communication so as to avoid incidents,” though he did not answer a question about what form that might take. He added there will be future discussions on details of how it would work in practice.

He also said that Beijing was again willing to grant Australian journalists access to China, but it was up to the media organisations to decide whether to send people there.

Falun Gong practitioners protest outside Parliament House during CCP Premier Li Qiang's visit in Canberra on June 17, 2024. (Ya Luo/The Epoch Times)
Falun Gong practitioners protest outside Parliament House during CCP Premier Li Qiang's visit in Canberra on June 17, 2024. (Ya Luo/The Epoch Times)

Senator Wong Speaks Out

With little other detail revealed on what might have been said behind closed doors, it was left to Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong to reiterate the kind of talk that had characterised Canberra’s attitude to Beijing before Mr. Li’s arrival.

Meeting the premier on June 16, the Adelaide-based senator celebrated the announcement that two new pandas were to be given to the city’s zoo.

She nonetheless used the occasion to highlight the ongoing tension between the two countries, saying Australia was in a “permanent contest” with the CCP over the Pacific, which she blamed on the former Coalition government.

She said Australia remained focused on areas of disagreement, including Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness toward Taiwan, which she characterised as “one of the riskiest flashpoints in the world.”

“We support the maintenance of the status quo, that the status quo is the best path for us to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and in the world,” Ms. Wong said.

“In terms of the military activities and in and around the Taiwan Strait ... We are deeply concerned about the increased activities and the risk of miscalculation, the risk of mistake. And that is a view we’ve put publicly and we have put directly to China.”

She said Australia continued to advocate for Yang Hengjun, the academic and Australian citizen who has been given a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court.

Ms. Wong added that she would not go into Mr. Yang’s current health conditions for privacy reasons.

Differences on Yang, Ukraine

In contrast, when Mr. Albanese was questioned about the risk that Mr. Yang may die in a Beijing jail, he shut down the issue by referring to Ms. Wong’s comments and refused to add anything further.

Similarly, while Senator Wong called on Beijing to use its “special responsibility” and “great power” as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to urge an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the prime minister said he had raised the “ongoing impact” of the war with Mr. Li.

The difference in approach is no doubt at least partly due to the fact that the prime minister must be mindful of trade, while his foreign minister has a narrower focus.

It may also be a strategy to minimise any ill-feeling the premier might have towards MPs that may have a harsher stance on Beijing, as well as ensuring Mr. Albanese isn’t outnumbered in the party room.

More likely though, is that it shows a genuine divergence of opinion in the Labor Party about just how hard, and how far, Australia should press its case against its largest trading partner, which has only just removed some of the last few restrictions on its exports.

Rex Widerstrom is a New Zealand-based reporter with over 40 years of experience in media, including radio and print. He is currently a presenter for Hutt Radio.
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