Xi Jinping chose an old Chinese proverb about gratitude as he welcomed Anthony Albanese to the Great Hall of the People.
“In China, we often say: ‘when we drink water, we must not forget those who dug the well’.”
President Xi expressed thanks for Gough Whitlam’s decision 50 years ago to establish diplomatic relations. In case anyone missed it, this visit marks the anniversary of Whitlam’s historic visit.
It’s a very handy memory for both leaders to promote as they attempt to move their relationship forward from a more painful recent period.
Indeed, Albanese went out of his way to highlight the fond memory of 1973 just hours before his meeting with Xi. The prime minister endured freezing temperatures to retrace Whitlam’s footsteps at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, where his predecessor once posed in front of the “Echo Wall”.
Where is the well of goodwill?
The echo of Whitlam from 1973, however, is increasingly difficult to hear these days. The proverbial well of goodwill has dried up dangerously.
And even as both parties try to move on, the relationship difficulties aren’t far below the surface. They haven’t left.
After visiting the temple yesterday, the Prime Minister was asked – twice – whether he trusted Xi Jinping. Albanese replied cautiously. “He never said anything to me that wasn’t done.”
Maybe. But Chinese leaders often say one thing on trade and do another.
Indeed, Albanese looked bluntly the day before as Premier Li Qiang asserted that China was “resolutely opposed to unilateralism and protectionism,” during a speech at an annual trade expo in Shanghai .
The remark was made without a hint of irony, despite China’s unilateral trade sanctions on Australia over the past three years.
These trade sanctions have not yet been fully lifted, but it is clear that Xi wants to move forward.
“China-Australia relations are on the right path of improvement and development,” he said. “I’m heartened to see that,” he offered, as if he were an impartial observer rather than a central decision-maker in the fate of the relationship.
Commerce leads the way
This spell now appears to be an ongoing improvement.
During their private talks, Xi agreed with Albanese on the quality of Australian wine, which has been subjected to crippling tariffs by China. The president reportedly gave strong indications that the tariffs, currently under review, would soon be removed, as would the lobster and beef sanctions.
On a commercial level at least, this meeting and the months leading up to it were an absolute success for Australia.
The prime minister said trade in goods previously sanctioned by China had increased by almost $6 billion compared to the same period the previous year. A direct dividend, he suggests, from his management of the relationship (and an argument designed to fend off criticism of his international travels as well).
Xi directly addressed China’s bid to join the regional trade deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which Australia had previously dismissed as having “no prospect”.
Today, Albanese is less categorical, but emphasizes the high standards of free trade required for membership. Given that China has failed to demonstrate such standards in recent years, it is difficult to imagine Australia getting China’s application accepted.
But areas of tension remain
Albanese had promised to be “frank” with Xi about areas of disagreement in the relationship.
He discussed the plight of detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun, human rights issues in China, and the need for stability in the region (i.e. the South China Sea). The Prime Minister said he also reiterated Australia’s support for maintaining the status quo with respect to Taiwan.
However, neither leader wanted these differences to stand in the way of “moving forward” with the relationship. The Prime Minister invited Xi to visit Australia and the President also invited Albanese to return to China.
Annual leadership-level talks, which have failed in recent years, are expected to resume.
Although Xi’s inscrutable expression makes it difficult to know what he thought of the outcome, Albanese’s smile after the meeting said it all. The Prime Minister was more than satisfied with the result.
Australia’s concerns remain over China’s aggressive behavior in the region, cyberhacking and human rights. China’s frustration remains with Australia’s close alliance with the United States and AUKUS in particular.
But there is another old proverb that perhaps sums up the approach taken on these issues last night in Beijing: “let sleeping dogs sleep.”
David Speers is the national politician and host of Insiders, broadcast on ABC TV Sundays at 9am or on iview.