This is an awkward time for an Australian prime minister to be going to China. War-drums on the Korean Peninsula and maritime tensions from Scarborough Shoal to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands provide an unpromising backdrop for accentuating visions of shared prosperity in a peaceful Asian Century.
Yet, the rigidities of high-level visit planning being what they are, now is the time for better or worse that Julia Gillard finds herself going to Beijing, via the Boao Forum on Hainan Island.
And this is no ordinary visit. Australia’s tough and embattled Labor leader, fresh from her latest and presumably last showdown with Mandarin-speaking rival Kevin Rudd, is bringing with her a team of Ministers – foreign affairs, defence, trade, financial services – to launch the most comprehensive policy dialogue to date between the two countries.
It is a clear expression of Australia’s determination to build broad trade, investment and political ties with China, even as differences on security issues or between the nature of the two societies and polities loom starker than ever. Someone, it seems, is getting the message that Australia and China need to try harder at something approaching political ‘trust.’
China is now Australia’s largest trading partner by far; Australian iron ore exports alone, at something like $43 billion a year, dwarf most of the world’s bilateral aggregate trade relationships. The basic equation seems simple: Australia is a vast and reliable resources supplier. And, whatever bumps there may be along the way, China’s demand continues.
Yet of late there have been rumblings about the prospects for the economic partnership, especially about whether Chinese investors will continue to find the land Down Under an attractive or welcoming destination. The figures may not bear it out, but perceptions have risen in China that Australia tends to treat Chinese investment bids with suspicion.
Ms. Gillard will seek to address these concerns, even though it is understandable that Australia applies extra scrutiny to large investments from state-owned enterprises, whichever country they hail from.
She will also sell the message that Australia welcomes China’s and wider Asia’s rise, that there is a hope to diversify the trade relationship into services and food security, and that her government has a plan to change Australia to meet these opportunities – even though the resourcing of that plan is open to question.
The prickliest part of the visit is likely to be about the big strategic challenges of Indo-Pacific Asia. Ms. Gillard may have good reason to seek to build bridges with Beijing after frictions of the Rudd years. But it would be damaging to Australia’s self-respect as a serious middle power, a democracy, a U.S. ally, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and a champion of a stable and rules-based Asian order if Canberra’s team failed on this visit to express with frankness their concerns about three critical zones of armed tension in Asia: the South China Sea, the East China Sea and, most of all, Korea.
On all these issues, Australia needs to do its bit to help sway the internal debate in China away from assertiveness or tolerance of destabilizing behavior. If that complicates the task of building trust between these two very different countries, so be it.