Pandas, lobsters and turkey talk push security to the side
Panda with lobster

There's an air of unreality in prime minister Albanese's euphoric visit to Beijing.

Written by

Peter Jennings

It suits Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping to keep the Prime Minister’s China visit focused on symbolism rather than substance.

The Communist Party-controlled Chinese media is presenting the visit as an opportunity for Australia to atone, in the words of Beijing’s Global Times newspaper, for the “securitisation, politicisation and even demonisation of the bilateral relationship”.

The Chinese view is that every problem in the relationship is Australia’s fault.

Albanese seems content to go along with that, accepting the Global Times’ faint praise that “the current Labor government is taking measures to gradually return to the mature and pragmatic foreign policy trajectory”.

On several occasions before and during the trip Albanese has repeated the phrase “Australia will co-operate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.”

Don’t expect any disagreements to be on display. If Albanese does raise issues of China’s military aggression in the South China Sea, threatening Taiwan, human rights violations and cyber espionage, these will be fleeting references cushioned in otherwise benign language.

In Shanghai, Albanese described bilateral ties as a “relationship based on respect, maturity and mutual benefit”. It would be hard to think of four less accurate words to describe Beijing’s actions towards Australia.

Albanese claimed “the beating heart of our relationship is conversation. Australians and Chinese, talking to each other.” What can that possibly mean? The dominance of “Xi Jinping thought” prevents Chinese officials, academics and citizens expressing any views independent of CCP direction. In Australia, stabilised relations with Beijing tongue-ties any government analysis of our worsening strategic outlook.

Given the impossibility of serious strategic dialogue with China, what the visit will deliver is images of Albanese retracing Gough Whitlam’s steps touring the Temple of Heaven – “The Labor Party does care about our history,” he told the media in Beijing.

In Shanghai a grinning Albanese posed for photos with Trade Minister Don Farrell, each holding a lobster. He told another media gathering: “Let me just say this about pandas: I’m pro panda. Let’s be very clear. Pandas are wonderful animals.”

There is more than a touch of Justin Trudeau’s stress on style over substance in Albanese’s recent international engagement. But to give the Canadian leader credit, at the G20 meeting in November last year, Trudeau delivered some sharp messages to Xi over China’s interference in the last Canadian election.

It is highly unlikely Albanese will raise with Chinese leaders the October 18 statement by ASIO director-general Mike Burgess that “the Chinese government is engaged in the most sustained, scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and expertise in history. It is unprecedented and it is unacceptable.”

The Prime Minister has not yet raised an incident in September when “ASIO detected and disrupted a plot to infiltrate a prestigious Australian research institution. The plot involved a visiting professor – a genuine academic who had been recruited by Chinese intelligence. The spymasters gave him money and a shopping list of intelligence requirements and sent him to Australia.”

Albanese is, in fact, promoting Chinese foreign investment, which will “continue to contribute to Australia’s growth and the creation of Australian jobs”.

Australian business is taking the Albanese visit as a signal to double down on Chinese engagement. If successful this will deepen our economic dependency on a country with fundamentally incompatible strategic aims and objectives. By contrast, the US and much of the EU are actively seeking to reduce supply-chain dependencies and espionage risks from China.

The Prime Minister was delighted at what he claimed was 250 Australian businesses attending the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, but he did not draw attention to the warning in Australia’s first Critical Infrastructure Annual Risk Review issued a few days ago that such business gatherings are a prime venue for hostile intelligence operations: “Attendances at conferences, trade shows and other business-related travel provide increased opportunities for contact with foreign state actors.”

The Australian government used to advise exporters to diversify their markets away from China because of the risk that Beijing will use trade bans in their political influence campaigns.

When asked in Shanghai to set out the government’s message on diversification, Albanese said: “Well, I think all countries are seeking to diversify their trade, but we encourage positive relations. … And this is an economy that is complementary in many ways to the Australian economy. So, there are wins to be had.”

More than anything the Albanese visit highlights the absence of strategic thinking in the government’s approach. The emphasis on pandas, parties and photo opportunities undercuts what should be a more sober assessment of the risks China presents to Indo-Pacific security.

A political risk for Albanese is that he will come out of the visit looking more positive on China than most Australians think is justified. For example, the June Lowy Institute Poll found a remarkable 84 per cent of Australians did not trust China to act responsibly in the world. Only Russia was less trusted.

The poll also found that 75 per cent of Australians thought it likely that China would become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, and 87 per cent worried that China would open a military base in the Pacific.

Australians are more than capable of reading the strategic risks in a bellicose China. A military incident in the South China Sea – the result perhaps of repeatedly aggressive and dangerous flying behaviour of Chinese fighter pilots – would make Albanese’s wooing of Xi seem foolhardy.

At a Darwin stopover on the way to China, Albanese was asked about the Port of Darwin lease to a Chinese company for 99 years. He said: “I wouldn’t have, and a government I lead wouldn’t have leased the Port of Darwin to any foreign interests. I think that that was the wrong decision at the time.” But then after what he called an “independently at arm’s length” investigation to see if any measures were required on the lease, “advice came back saying that there weren’t so we stand by that”.

This was clearly a pre-visit concession to Xi, but one Albanese knows will be offensive to many Australians concerned about our northern security.

Another risk for Albanese is that he continues to surround himself with business entities and others that identified with the Yes case in the referendum.

Among those engaging with the Prime Minister in China were senior figures from BHP, Rio Tinto, the Business Council of Australia and the University of Sydney. The first three entities supported the Yes case. Sydney University declined to take a corporate position but the chancellor and vice-chancellor wrote a message to “their community” supporting the Yes case “in our personal capacity”.

Business elites pushed the voice with, and for, government. The same elites want Albanese to enable their return to economic glory days with China.

The problem for Albanese is that everyday Australians seem more worried about national security and know an international bully when they see one.

This article was first published in The Australian.