Australia and China have had a pretty significant diplomatic thaw this week as the respective top diplomats met in Beijing, the first high-level meeting in almost three years.
But the Communist Party-run Global Times told its readers that’s great for politicians, but ordinary Chinese still believe Australians are pretty awful and will continue to believe that for some time
Australia has been frozen out by China over the last few years over a number of issues from: Chinese political influence in Australia, to Australian interference in the South China Sea.
Both sides said they would try to work together in the economically contested South Pacific as China seeks to shore up some global relationships in a time of trade wars and economic tensions.
The Global Times said fine, but Australia is a sandbox for experimenting with other Western countries.
Following a successful surprise meeting on Thursday, Beijing and Canberra want to be friends again.
That’s good, but it won’t change the fact that, for the Chinese people, Australia has made “probably the worst” impression out of all Western nations, The Global Times has noted in a strongly worded opinion piece.
Despite a reportedly warm first encounter on Thursday between Australia’s newly enlisted foreign affairs minister Marise Payne and Chinese state councilor and foreign affairs minister Wang Yi (王毅 ) in Beijing, the strident Chinese tabloid had some tough truths to share for those hoping for a thaw in the frosty bilateral relationship.
In a typically withering opinion piece titled “It will be more difficult for China and Australia to repair people-to-people relations than to restore political relations,” the publication compared Australia unfavorably with US President Donald Trump.
At least when Trump was openly hostile toward China, people could understand why, the paper suggested.
“Trump has launched an unprecedented trade war with China, but the Chinese people can at least understand the rationale of the US. But Chinese people do not get why Australia is so hostile to China (in the last two years),” the opinion piece reads.
In fact, the resumption of high-level meetings between China and Australia will come a lot easier than rediscovery of the once mutually admirative and friendly feelings between the two peoples, the paper observed.
Making the enemy less of an enemy
“Due to its performance in the past two years, Australia has left a bad impression on the Chinese people, probably the worst of all Western countries,” the opinion column said.
It continued: “The Chinese people understand that we must make friends with the outside world and try our best to make the enemy less than the enemy. Therefore, it is acceptable to improve the relationship between China and Australia rationally. However, people’s understanding of the Australian position in recent years is difficult to change in a short time.
For almost a decade really, Australia has been caught in a bit of a slow motion PR trainwreck in China.
Emerging of a once-in-a-generation trading boom that peaked around 2007, relations ironically began to sour around the same time the Mandarin speaking China expert Kevin Rudd was voted into office the same year.
We don’t want to talk about Kevin
The rot really began when Rudd famously delivered an unanticipated dressing-down of China in a speech at Beijing University, using a little-known and controversial word ‘Zheng you’ to describe a friend who is unafraid to tell it like it is.
Unsurprisingly the ensuing blunt assessment of China’s various faults in fluent Mandarin before an audience of hyped-up, patriotically infused, pre-Beijing Olympic students has never been forgotten, or forgiven.
What has followed has been a shopping list of insults, perceived or real, that have stretched the relationship to a breaking point.
Chinese public opinion can grasp that Australia is economically close to China, but politically and strategically attached to the US, the Times noted.
“But Australia has taken the lead in boycotting China’s so-called “infiltration” of the South China Seas … Australia also took the lead among Western countries to exclude Huawei from participating in 5G construction.”
Salt on the wound
“This is to say that salt was sprinkled on the wounds (伤口上的盐) of China-Australia relations.”
This position stands in contrast to the broad reporting of events in Beijing on Thursday where foreign minister Wang Yi indicated that the two sides had found “an important common understanding.”
The flashpoint of Thursday’s discussions this time centered on the South Pacific, after Australia’s prime minister on Thursday announced a surprise multibillion economic, diplomatic and security dollar fund to counter China’s rising influence in the region.
Beijing and Canberra should work together in the South Pacific and not wake up one day as strategic rivals, the State Councilor and former Ambassador to Japan said on Thursday.
“Australia and China are not competitors, not rivals but cooperation partners and we have agreed to combine and capitalize on our respective strengths to carry out trilateral cooperation involving Pacific island states.”
An important extended thread in China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road, the redrawing and rebuilding of trade routes, sea lanes and infrastructures, Wang said that China would prefer to be Australia’s partner in driving infrastructure in the Pacific.
Wang spoke of forming a “tripartite cooperative” with Pacific nations after Morrison announced a rebooting of Australia’s engagement with its neglected “backyard,” of which the centrepiece is a $3 billion infrastructure fund to potentially lure island states away from the maritime leg of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
All well and good for the islands, the Times said, “but it is uncertain whether (people to people ties) will recover.”
“Let Australia pay the price …”
On Tuesday, Australia flagged concerns at the United Nations Human Rights Council review in Geneva on the Communist Party’s aggressive expansion of “reeducation” camps directed against local Muslim populations in western China’s Xinjiang province.
“In an interview, Payne said that she would ‘talk about human rights’ in Beijing. This information shows that China-Australia relations will not be too calm in the future,” the Times cautioned.
“The example of Australia tells us that cooperation does not necessarily mean that each other is a friend … of course, we have to build leverage to harness (the advantages) of a complex relationship.”
“Australia said a few words of disrespect to China, but if it does actions that harm China’s actual interests … then we should respond, let Australia pay the price, and steer mutual cooperation through struggle.”
However, foreign minister Wang said that since taking office, the newly elected Australian government (this one is about two months old, and it’s not elected) has made “positive gestures” toward developing China-Australia relations on many occasions.
According to the state council news agency Xinhua, both sides also vowed to “promote bilateral ties on the basis of mutual trust and win-win results.”
“We stand ready to strengthen communication and coordination with Australia in multilateral mechanisms, as a way of jointly safeguarding multilateralism and free trade,” Wang added, in a clear nod to China’s need to shore up multilateral support as the damaging trade war with the US continues to impact the economy.
A country, yes, but also a kind of sandbox for experimentation
Xinhua noted that Payne acknowledged Australia does not regard China as a military threat and that a prosperous China is a positive and significant outcome for the entire world, as is custom on these occassions.
Meanwhile, the Times closed it out like this.
“Australia is a middle-power Western country not far from China. It is important to say that Australia is important to China. It doesn’t matter if it is not important. China should regard relations with Australia as a sandbox (一块沙盘) for experimenting with the relationship between China and the West.”