Ciara Morris | China Fellow
This month marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and the People's Republic of China (PRC). We can finally enter into the new year knowing we’re coming out of a diplomatic deep freeze.
For the first 20 years of my young life, Australia celebrated its fruitful cultural exchange of ideas and people and its interdependent positive commercial relationship with the PRC. The highest point in the relationship was recognised by the successful adoption of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) in 2015 shortly after our two leaders agreed to describe the relationship as a "comprehensive strategic partnership".
2015 also happened to be the year I started university and learning Chinese. During my 4-year degree and into my Masters (which I studied in the PRC), the relationship nosedived into a diplomatic standoff littered with economic coercion and ill-advised and nationalistic political grandstanding. The community of Australian students interested in China – beyond the narrow lens of security hawks in Canberra at the time – were left feeling confused and undervalued.
Along with classmates and colleagues around the country, I continued to learn about China despite the endless jokes (some intentionally comedic and some not) that I must be a Chinese spy; why else would I be interested in learning Chinese or traveling to China at a time like this?
I persisted not only from genuine interest, but also because I knew that a deep understanding of the PRC would be a crucial skill set for Australia in the future.
The first face-to-face meeting between Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping – and the first between any Australian prime minister and a Chinese president since 2016 – came this year on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali.
With Xi having secured at least another 5 years as president and the country facing an economic downturn, the PRC is lowering the temperature of its international relations. According to Professorial Fellow Michelle Grattan, thawing relations with Australia may be a “slipstream of this wider move”.
Albanese and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong describe the aim of Australia's China policy as “stabilisation”. Which is sensible; there is no silver bullet. The bilateral relationship won't bounce back to how it was in 2015, and there will still be passionate disagreements, as is normal in international relations.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggests five core principles to dealing with the PRC under Xi: unapologetic commitment to universal human rights; emphatic support for the US alliance, though not at the expense of Australian interests; maximise mutually beneficial economic engagement including tourism and educational exchange; seize opportunities for collaboration on global issues like climate change; and finally, when we do need to call out Beijing, do so in partnership with friends and allies, not alone.
We cannot ignore the very real issues in our bilateral relationship - arbitrary detention, threats of foreign interference and ongoing trade disputes to name a few. But neither should we ignore the strong economic and people-to-people ties that bring our two countries together in mutual benefit.
Today, I am optimistic that a new cohort of Australian students can develop an interest in Chinese language, culture and politics in a kinder environment than has marked the last few years. Now is the time for all Australians to deepen their understanding of China.
We need Australian businesses, entrepreneurs and talent who are ‘China competent’. But we also need historians, teachers, artists, community leaders, and everyday people who understand the world power on our doorstep, and its influence on our region and our nation - the good, the bad and all the grey in between.
As Australia makes policy adjustments to facilitate the stabilisation of bilateral relations, Beijing should, in a display of good faith, drop trade sanctions on Australian goods and release Australian journalist Cheng Lei from detention. From here, we can move into the next period of relations with stable, managed strategic competition and cooperation.