By Geoff Raby
When Li Keqiang last visited Australia he was Vice-Premier, Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister, and the year was 2009. Li's short visit was to halt the relationship's downward spiral.
The Chinese side proposed the visit because it felt Australia needed help in managing the relationship. It was an irony that things had come to such a low ebb under a prime minister who spoke fluent Mandarin and claimed deep insights into China.
The year 2009 began with Rio Tinto stunning Beijing by rejecting Chinalco's bid to increase its stake in the company after the deal was all but done. China would never be convinced that the government was not behind this.
In June, the Prime Minister rose to the bait of then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull on the 20th anniversary of the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown and joined a debate with him.
In a speech so nuanced that not even the Chinese Foreign Ministry understood it, Rudd seemed to have supported US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's call for a full account of all those who had died on that dark day in 1989. In fact, he did not go quite that far, but said enough to enrage the Chinese government. As an old acquaintance of Rudd's from the Foreign Ministry pointed out despairingly, he was the only head of government to comment. It was one thing for a foreign minister to do, but quite another for a prime minister. In diplomacy form can often be as important as substance.
A month later, Rio Tinto's Shanghai-based country manager, Stern Hu, was arrested. While eventually found guilty of corruption, before the trial senior Australian government ministers ran a running public commentary on the case, at times coming close to disparaging China's legal system. Whatever one may think privately, diplomacy involves certain conventions such as "mutual respect". This is even more so when dealing with a prickly, thin-skinned state such as China.
Then in July riots broke out in Urumqi. Ethnic Uighurs attacked Han Chinese in the streets, murdering many. Again Rudd spoke for Australia. While most of his speech was in line with what others had said, he concluded by restating Australia's long- standing concerns over China's human rights. The Urumqi riots, however, had nothing to do with China's human rights. They involved Uighurs killing Han, not a minority being repressed. The Chinese government was incensed, making its views abundantly clear.
By now the relationship was in a tailspin. The ambassador was "secretly" brought back to Canberra for urgent consultations, which became public almost immediately. Some weeks later, Li Keqiang's visit was proposed by the Chinese side at unusually short notice.
Rudd and Li had several hours of meetings, resulting in a joint statement on the bilateral relationship. Australia usually resists such statements when proposed by China, fearing we may in some way be co-opted to its agenda. On this occasion, we were only too happy to take up the proposal.
The statement sets out a pragmatic approach to managing the relationship. It notes our societies are different, with our own forms of political and social organisation. These differences need to be respected. It acknowledged our disagreements, but emphasised shared interests and agreed that we would focus on areas of common interest, rather than the things that divide us.
China has followed this approach. But Australia has meandered because it has never resolved the question of whether to adopt a realist or an idealist stance. The latter stresses values and hence focuses on the differences and the things that divide us. It makes the pragmatic management of the relationship difficult and can have real costs. We are viewed as an unreliable partner, even a potential adversary, while diminishing our capacity to influence Beijing's thinking to our advantage.
The idealist approach and the policy confusion that flows from it was on full display last week in the peculiar speech made in Singapore by Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop, when she declared that because China was not a "democracy" it could not "lead" the region.
It was an odd thing to do just before Li's visit. It also effectively pre-empts some of the most important issues to be addressed in her own foreign policy white paper. When the 100 senior diplomats return to Canberra, the not inconsequential subject of China in the region and our attitude to it is now closed.
It was also strange to make a speech about democracy in Singapore, itself hardly a model of what we in Australia would think of as democracy, and in the middle of a region with a military dictatorship in Thailand, and faux competitive political systems elsewhere among our near neighbors.
It is another example of, on one hand, the stridency and, on the other, the naivety that besets Australia's foreign policy at present, and which sets us apart from our neighbours in their relations with China. We are increasingly becoming the "odd man out".
Presumably the intended audience was US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his first visit to East Asia. With the state of the new administration, it was wishful thinking that anyone was listening.
As Li arrives in Canberra, Stern Hu is still in prison, 18 Crown employees, including three Australians, have joined him, China has ignored Australia's admonishments over the South China Sea, while our regional neighbours are working towards an accommodation with Beijing without our involvement. This is the first head of government visit from China in 28 months, which is the longest gap in a decade or more. The relationship continues to drift because of Canberra's ambivalence and the influence of values over our foreign policy.
Meanwhile, since Li was last here, China's economy has nearly doubled in size, it has become an innovative participant in regional and world affairs, including institution building, and, whether we like it or not, the dominant regional power. It is not going away and will increasingly lead the region through its sheer economic weight. The best thing the Prime Minister could do this week would be to dust off the joint statement signed with Li by Turnbull's arch rival, Kevin Rudd.
Geoff Raby is Chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and a former Australian Ambassador to China.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review: http://www.afr.com/opinion/columnists/li-keqiang-arrives-to-a-drifting-relationship-with-china-20170319-gv1sh6
© 2018 Geoff Raby & Associates