When China and the United States announced on Thursday a new agreement to reduce carbon emissions at the Glasgow climate summit, it was the reaction that almost spoke louder than the detail of the deal.
Only a week ago, US President Joe Biden had publicly berated his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for not attending the summit in person. Such open hostility has become par for the course for two nations that are at loggerheads on almost every dimension of their relationship. It therefore came as a shock to many that, after months of secret negotiations, they could agree on anything. But few would consider this anything approaching a detente in relations.
Xi Jinping is set to become China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.Credit:AP
Despite former prime minister Paul Keating’s plea this week for a less antagonistic approach towards China, insisting that “big powers are rude” and that Beijing was “in the adolescent phase of their diplomacy”, the road ahead for most Western democracies with China, including Australia, appears fraught at best.
While it may be true that China is still learning the ropes of being a global power, its wolf warrior diplomacy is fast losing it friends. The European Union, once inclined to take a more conciliatory approach in contrast to the bellicose views of former US president Donald Trump, was recently willing to face the brunt of Beijing’s displeasure by allowing Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, to visit and then sending a delegation to the island.
And it’s not just in diplomacy that Beijing is finding it tough going. As Mr Xi solidifies his authority in his bid to gain a further five years as president, the irreconcilable differences of an authoritarian government presiding over a capitalist system have become more evident. On Thursday, speaking via video at an APEC summit for business leaders in Auckland, Mr Xi said that “we have endeavoured to create an open economic architecture and forge an Asia-Pacific partnership based on mutual trust, inclusiveness and win-win co-operation”.
In practice, China has increasingly used trade retaliation to punish nations that question its authority or its record on human rights. Australia is a victim of this, but it’s hardly alone. Mr Xi has also been willing to bend market forces within China to enforce his government’s agenda. In recent times he has imposed a new economic model of “common prosperity” by reining in some conspicuously wealthy sectors such as big tech and private education.
As China grows more confident asserting its place in global affairs, and the United States looks to maintain its influence, it is almost inevitable that points of friction will arise. Mr Keating is right in his fundamental view that a better relationship with China can only benefit Australia, but we have increasingly found ourselves up against a nation willing to use aggression before diplomacy, and to interfere more blatantly in other countries’ affairs. That is not to say it’s inevitable that antagonism will or should become a default position. As the climate pact between China and America has shown, enmities can be put aside to negotiate a mutually beneficial outcome on a matter of global importance.
It’s clear that with China, an eye on the long game will be crucial. It will be the major economic and diplomatic power in our region for our lifetimes. We must navigate potential flashpoints, including the control of Taiwan and the South China Sea, and the human rights implications of its takeover of Hong Kong and its actions in Xinjiang.
Australia’s military might, as Mr Keating so colourfully pointed out, will never match that of China. But as a respected “middle power”, Australia will have a significant role to play in the region and, therefore, globally. It will take patience, moral consistency and diplomatic savvy, but if Australia can muster these things, it can be a positive force in a changing world.
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