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Pure gold or glass beads? Warnings abound for Australia amid Li’s visit

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese welcomes Chinese Premier Li Qiang to the Marble Foyer of Parliament House Canberra (Source: Anthony Albanese X)

It is the first major visit by a Chinese leader for nearly a decade and while everything appears to be “normalising” in the Australia–China relationship, we need to be wary of trinkets being presented as gold.

It is the first major visit by a Chinese leader for nearly a decade and while everything appears to be “normalising” in the Australia–China relationship, we need to be wary of trinkets being presented as gold.

Australia is unique among many of the global “developed nations”, with a largely underdeveloped economy solely dependent on the export of raw resources, energy, agricultural produce, real estate speculation, and a select group of services from the “knowledge economy”.

This economic model has worked relatively well at least during the comparatively benign period of global history that has dominated the post-Second World War epoch; however, now as history begins to oddly rhyme again, we appear to be running aground.


Now amid rising great power competition and multipolarity being spearheaded, in large part, by Australia’s largest trading partner, the People’s Republic of China, in its attempts to build a parallel global system defined by its antithetical position to the US-led world order.

While Beijing isn’t alone in pursuing this ambitious, epoch-defining agenda, drawing on the support of Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Turkey and others from across the “developing world” through organisations like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it is by and large dominated by China.

Yet despite the seemingly symbiotic economic relationship between Australia and China, it hasn’t precluded the rising superpower from seeking to punish Australia and coerce the nation into compliance amid calls for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

For many Western nations, this blatant attempt by Beijing was a “mask slipping” moment where Australia served as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the world who had been seduced by the promise of economic wealth and “stability” built upon the voracious demands of China’s immense population.

However, the change of government in 2022 saw a “refreshing” of relations between the two nations, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seeking to promote the “normalisation” of relations, with an emphasis on having China remove sanctions from Australian agricultural products.

Yet while this pursuit of “normal” bilateral relations has continued at breakneck speed, Beijing’s antagonism and, at times, open hostility towards Australia have been on display in the South China Sea and Western Pacific where the Australian Defence Force has come under repeated and targeted “attacks” by the People’s Liberation Army.

Bringing us to the recent visit by Chinese Premier Li Qiang which has been met with a range of responses from both the media and public, with pro-China sympathisers and anti-China protestors clashing in Canberra over the state visit.

Prime Minister Albanese said during his official statement in Canberra, “My government has put dialogue at the centre of Australia’s relationship with China because it is always most effective when we deal directly with each other. That’s how we make progress on our shared interests and protect regional stability. Without dialogue, we can’t address any of the differences that arise between us. Australia and China have renewed and revitalised our engagement...

“Australia advocates that we should all work together to promote a regional balance where no country dominates and no country is dominated. A region where countries large and small operate by the same rules, rules that we have all had a say in shaping. I’ve made it clear as nations with different histories, political systems and values, we will cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest,” Prime Minister Albanese said further.

Echoing the sentiments, Premier Li said, “We reaffirmed our commitment to defining this relationship as a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, to mutual respect and trust and to viewing and handling this relationship in a positive attitude. The two sides agreed to maintain high-level interactions, strengthen exchanges between the legislatures, government departments and political parties and fully resume various areas of institutional dialogue and bring their role into full play...

“We both stand for expanding mutually beneficial cooperation and enhancing the vitality and durability of China–Australia relations. This relationship is essentially characterised by mutual benefit and results,” Premier Li went on to add.

Don’t be fooled by shiny objects

Despite the diplomatic language and niceties between the two nations and Australia’s two new Pandas, which are sure to be a tourist boon, that doesn’t mean that the indiscretions and hostile behaviour of the last decade and beyond can’t be swept under the rug.

Recognising this, a number of high-profile media commentators have been quick to warn Australia, and its policymakers in particular, to resist the temptation to fall for the “shiny objects” presented by an autocratic and revisionist power like China.

Beginning this is Ben Packham of The Australian, who said, “Despite all the smiles and gestures of friendship, the government has zero faith that China will ever be a reliable partner...

“The surreal nature of the occasion was brought home by the presence of Sky News journalist Cheng Lei, who was jailed by the Chinese regime for three years on trumped-up spying charges. Two Chinese officials stood between her and television cameras to block her image being seen on the state-run network, CCTV, for which she used to work before she became a pawn in Beijing’s coercive campaign against Australia,” Packham highlighted.

Yet in his words, the “absurdity" and performative nature of this state visit doesn’t stop there, with Packham adding, “The absurdity continued with the signing of five MOUs proclaiming new co-operation on trade, research and climate change. None were released for scrutiny, but the idea of more research co-operation with Chinese scientists will send a chill through the national security establishment.

“In a supremely ironic move after China’s three-year campaign of economic coercion against Australian exporters, Li committed to ‘enhancing the implementation’ of the nations’ free-trade agreement. Meanwhile, Australian lobster remains banned by Beijing,” he explained.

So while the rhetoric seems to be “moving in the right direction”, the proof will ultimately be found in the pudding as we witness whether China continues to change their behaviour or, as is more likely, continue on their course of coercive action in the region.

Expanding on these points is Michael Shoebridge of Strategic Analysis Australia, began by saying, “Premier Li Qiang’s triumphal visit to Australia was meant to mark another waypoint on the journey to a stabilised Australia-China relationship. Instead it shows a trajectory of intimidation and silencing of our government, along with a slow-motion loss of self-respect. Our government, from the Prime Minister down, is losing the ability to speak honestly to Chinese counterparts or the Australian public.

“Instead of thinking our government can change the direction of events, it looks very much as if it has given up and decided to manage decline as we adjust to doing what Beijing desires,” Shoebridge detailed further.

However, for Shoebridge, the mealy-mouthed approach taken by the Prime Minister only serves to invite further acts of hostility, coercion, and aggression by the rising superpower if, as a nation, our leaders won’t be vocal in the public discourse.

Shoebridge detailed this, saying, “It continues a pattern by Albanese that we saw with his most recent ‘dialogue’ with Xi in November last year, when it appears he did not raise the incident in which a Chinese warship injured an Australian navy diver in the water repairing our navy frigate just days before. And it fits with the Prime Minister’s developing mantra to ‘co-operate where we can, disagree where we must’.”

However, by far the most egregious comment by the Prime Minister was him explaining that Australia must not “manufacture confrontations” with our largest trading partner – call me crazy, but the People’s Liberation Army-Navy pinging our Navy divers while in the water isn’t us “manufacturing a confrontation”.

Shoebridge picked up on this, saying, “That has an unfortunate whiff of pretending we have to manufacture confrontations with China rather than notice the real ones we are experiencing – Chinese military aggression, cyber hacking and foreign interference campaigns, even bussing in aggressive Chinese rent-a-crowds to intimidate and confront peaceful protesters in Canberra.

“What we have instead of a stabilising relationship is an expanding series of ‘dialogues’ that the Albanese government presents as ways to manage our differences. Unfortunately, we know from our own and others’ experience of these bilateral exchanges with China – on human rights, cyber hacking, military-to-military communications – that these meetings are all words, no results,” Shoebridge detailed further.

Tellingly, Shoebridge added, “In Albanese, we have a leader who is celebrating the importance of direct face time with his Chinese counterpart and other senior officials like him but who seems afraid to use this contact to say even simple difficult things that stand up for our citizens such as Cheng or our service men and women whom we send into harm’s way.”

Despite the optimistic wishes of the Prime Minister and his “dialogue heavy” approach to the Australia–China relationship, it appears to be a calculation increasingly made in a bubble seemingly devoid of reality the challenges in the relationship aren’t going to disappear.

Perhaps more critically, Beijing’s actions over the last couple of years demonstrate that the rising superpower will only double down on its antagonism, hostility, and coercive attempts in the region and Australia will bear the brunt of it.

Final thoughts

If Australia is going to survive and thrive in this new era, Australia’s policymakers and the public are going to have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

All of this is underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers urgently need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policymaking since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Importantly, Australia, its policymakers, and people must avoid the pitfalls of being seduced by shiny objects and hold true to the values and principles of the nation.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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