The Tuesday meeting between Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his new Australian counterpart Marise Payne on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly has been interpreted by Australian media as signaling Beijing’s will to rebuild its relationship with Canberra after their ties soured during the tenure of former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
In his remarks, Wang hoped China-Australia relations can get back on a sound track and quelled Australia’s fears about China’s presence in the South Pacific. He obviously took a different and softer tone in sharp contrast with that during his two meetings with Julie Bishop, Payne’s predecessor, in May and early August.
China-Australia ties have deteriorated rapidly thanks to Canberra. Over the past two years, China-bashing has become a theme in Canberra’s foreign policy. Australian officials blasted China’s infrastructure construction and loans to South Pacific island nations, warned the public about Chinese interference and infiltration of the country, and criticized China on the South China Sea issue despite Australia being outside those waters. Just days before the change of government in late August, the Turnbull administration banned Chinese telecom companies Huawei and ZTE from participating in the country’s rollout of 5G networks, citing national security concerns.
Before stepping down, Turnbull seemed to have realized his faulty policy and delivered a conciliatory speech at the University of New South Wales. The hope for better ties, embraced by the administration of new prime minister Scott Morrison, has prompted many in China and Australia to hold guarded optimism that bilateral relations may have come to a nadir and will see a reset.
Of course China is willing to rebuild its relations with Australia. But this doesn’t mean Beijing will put behind issues such as the ban on Huawei and ZTE.
In fact China hopes that with improved ties Australia could realize what a rising China means for Australia. After all, Canberra has never before felt the influence of a rising power from the Orient and it needs to adapt to the trend and adjust its policy. In this process arise challenges and more importantly opportunities that should be grasped.
As Wang said, China and Australia are complementary economies and have more in common than differences. In today’s fast-changing world where multilateralism and free trade are being challenged, China and Australia need to emphasize cooperation over conflict and join hands against those upending the international order. In this sense, a reset for the relationship is highly anticipated, even expected.