Beyond the persistent sources of tension, new and serious obstacles to the relationship are looming.
In addition to the new review of the 99-year lease of the port of Darwin by the Chinese company Landbridge, there is the lingering possibility that the Australian government will reject a major Chinese investment.
Then there is the potential use of Australia’s Magnitsky-style sanctions against senior Chinese officials implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
The warmer diplomatic mood could therefore turn out to be a false spring – any of these developments could reverse or at least stall recent trends.
What can Canberra do to solidify the resumption of relations? So far, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his ministers have picked low-hanging fruit.
Gone are the comparisons between the security challenges posed by contemporary China and the threat of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. It was one of the former defense minister’s favorite rhetorical speeches, which, unsurprisingly, aggravated the Chinese government.
China’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats are more like puppies.
The Albanian government is also toning down the language it uses to describe China’s trade restrictions. Instead of rhetorical criticism of “economic coercion,” the prime minister and his team eased diplomatic pressure by opposing China’s “sanctions.”
The changes are part of the new government’s efforts to pursue a “change of tone” and avoid “punching”, as Defense Minister Richard Marles put it. And this change was probably noticed and welcomed in Beijing.
The Chinese government has previously launched frequent, high-octane diplomatic attacks on Australia and made clear the coercive intent behind China’s trade restrictions.
After the Australian federal election, China’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats are looking more like puppies. Talk of Australia as the “cat’s paw” of the United States is gone, replaced by expressions of hope that “bilateral relations [can be handled] in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefit.
But warm words don’t make a strong relationship. To add some extra ballast in the bilateral relationship, the Albanian government should start considering new initiatives that will appeal to China without compromising Australian interests and values.
The logical place to look is climate change. As a first step, the Albanian government should offer to rehabilitate the Australia-China ministerial dialogue on climate change, which has fallen into disuse in recent years.
Not only would such a dialogue allow Australia and China to explore other practical ways to cooperate on a common existential challenge, but it would revitalize and institutionalize Ministerial engagement between Beijing and Canberra.
The Chinese government is likely to be particularly receptive given Beijing’s prioritization of responses to climate change and the rare alignment of Australian and Chinese interests on the issue.
As the Chinese Ambassador to Australia recently said of the “Labour Government [strong] focus on solving the climate change issue”: “This provides even more opportunities for Sino-Australian cooperation. »
The rehabilitation of a formalized ministerial dialogue could also be used to directly raise a wider range of concerns critical to Canberra, including consular affairs, human rights, military developments and other issues.
There is no guarantee that Beijing will adopt this initiative. But such a proposal is a low-risk option for Canberra. If the Chinese government is not receptive, the cost to Australia would be little more than eating a small portion of humble diplomatic pie.
Fundamentally, such a move would not involve compromising Australia’s security and economic interests or its commitments to human rights, the rule of law and liberal democratic values.
Wong’s meeting with the Chinese foreign minister, from whom he has long distanced himself, is not a reset. But Canberra can build on this diplomatic rapprochement by offering new mechanisms to manage one of Australia’s most difficult and critical relationships.