Just a fortnight ago, Anthony Albanese rubbed shoulders with Chinese leaders, including powerful President Xi Jinping, and was met with effusive praise by the country’s state media.
After years of strained relations, when official communications were virtually cut off, frosty relations appeared to be thawing.
Less than a week after this historic trip, Albanese was again chatting and warmly shaking hands with Xi, this time in San Francisco on the sidelines of the APEC summit.
But just days before their second conversation, it emerged that Australian navy divers were injured when a Chinese warship used its sonar while they were still in the water nearby.
According to an announcement from Defense Minister Richard Marles, the incident occurred “in international waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone” and although the Chinese vessel had received multiple warnings that personnel operated beneath the surface.
Albanese called the act “unsafe,” “dangerous” and “unprofessional.”
Overnight, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson said Australia had made a “reckless and irresponsible accusation” over the incident.
A fortnight ago in Beijing, in response to a question whether he thought China would answer the US phone in the event of an accident or near miss in the South China Sea, Albanese said he satisfied with the establishment of “positive engagement”. between Australia and China.
But on Monday, the prime minister did not confirm whether he had addressed the incident directly during his talks with Xi in San Francisco, saying only that the incident had been raised “very clearly through all normal channels.”
“The consequences of these events are that they damage relations, and it is certainly a damaging event and we have made that very clear to China,” Mr Albanese told Sky News.
So this begs the question: Was the display of diplomatic warmth in Beijing just that – for show – and is this incident undoing the positive progress that appeared to have been made?
Not necessarily – but it demonstrates Beijing’s priorities.
Defense trumps trade in China-West relations
Although the free flow of trade benefits both Australia and China, as both leaders have been at pains to emphasize, it does not negate Beijing’s strong ambitions in the South China Sea and the region. wider.
It also shows that while there are some common interests, deep and currently intractable differences will continue to punctuate relations between China and the West.
Benjamin Herscovitch of the Australian National University says the naval incident does not mean China is insincere in its attempts to repair ties with Australia.
“But this repair of relations will not slow the long-term trend toward more mutual suspicion in the security domain,” he said.
“This underlines that China will not let improving ties with Australia stop it from pursuing its concrete military objectives.”
Alessio Patalano, professor of East Asian warfare and strategy at Kings College London, believes it is time for countries like the United States and Australia to be realistic and start cultivating relations positive with China on issues such as trade and its military ambitions.
“You can have a very fruitful and positive meeting with the Chinese, you can talk about climate change and supply chains in a less confrontational way than 18 months ago,” he told the ABC.
“But it will not change the way (China) behaves militarily in the region, particularly in areas that it has made clear are among its core interests, whether it is its sovereignty or its maritime sphere of influence.
“So we should not expect them to change their behavior with regard to the Second Thomas Shoal, or with respect to activities around the Taiwan Strait, or the East China Sea, or even other parts of the South China Sea within the so-called Nine Dash Line.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy and Air Force have been intensifying activities in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea for some time.
And there are regular close incidents: at the end of October, flares were fired in front of a Canadian military helicopter and clashes between Philippine and Chinese ships have taken place in recent months.
Since former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August last year, the PLA has increased the number of flights across the midline of the Strait of Taiwan. Taiwan and began flying unmanned aircraft to the other side of the self-governing island.
In early 2022, the ADF accused a Chinese warship of pointing a military-grade laser at an Australian plane flying just north of Australia.
As at the time, Beijing has refuted the Australian version of last week’s events.
“Chinese troops are always highly disciplined and always operate professionally in accordance with international laws and conventions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said.
“(We) hope that some parties stop causing trouble (at) China’s doorstep, alongside China, to maintain (the) trend of improvement in China-Australia relations.”
Other messages came through state media, as is often the case, with Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times quoting analysts who questioned the “vague location” provided in the story Australian on where the incident took place.
“Another Chinese military expert who requested anonymity told the Global Times on Sunday that Australia probably intentionally chose not to disclose the exact location because it had a guilty conscience,” wrote journalists Liu Xuanzun and Guo Yuandan.
Again, overnight, senior colonel and Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said Australia’s remarks were “completely contradictory to the facts.”
“There is no demarcation in the relevant waters between China and Japan, there is no saying that ‘China’s military actions take place in or enter Japan’s exclusive economic zone'” , did he declare.
“We urge Australia to respect the facts, stop reckless and irresponsible accusations against China, take more measures that will enhance mutual trust, and create a positive atmosphere for the better development of bilateral relations between the two militaries .”
What does this mean for the future of the region?
Dr. Herscovitch says the PLA ultimately wants to make it more risky for other countries’ militaries to operate in the region.
“While it is unclear whether this particular action was authorized at higher levels of the PLA, the number of dangerous incidents is consistent with a concerted effort by Beijing to push other militaries out of the region by increasing the risks of dangerous encounters,” he said. the ABC.
“So even as relations between Australia and China recover, continued tensions between Beijing and Canberra in the security area can be expected.”
While acknowledging that this is not acceptable behavior given the injuries suffered by Australian navy divers, Professor Patalano says the intention was probably less aimed at Australia than at China.
“The Chinese (military) are currently under instruction to be very strict when it comes to any type of foreign vessel, especially vessels that come from the United States or countries close to the United States,” he said. he declared.
“It’s not about hurting Australians, it’s about making the point about China… about strength, about assertiveness, about ‘this is my backyard’.”
An accident in the South China Sea – or a strategic misunderstanding – is one of the most likely reasons why Chinese observers expect a war between the United States and China to break out.
The possibility of such an accident occurring was particularly worrying given that the Chinese military had completely cut off communication with its American equivalent.
One of the key achievements of US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Xi in California last week was a commitment to restart military-to-military communications.
And man to man, Xi and Biden agreed that they would answer the phone when the other called.
So, without any evidence that the PLA will scale back its military exercises, this phone call could be the only thing that averts disaster in the event of an accident.
Hopefully they will answer the phone as promised.