When Beijing’s new ambassador said in a conciliatory moment he hoped China and Australia could meet each other “half way” to mend ties, few suspected that might mean their foreign ministers’ running into each other in the Pacific.
But Penny Wong, Australia’s new foreign minister, and Wang Yi, her veteran Chinese counterpart, will almost do just that, as both set out this week on competing diplomatic trips to the island nations.
In the case of Wang, he plans to visit, mostly in person but also virtually, up to eight nations, including Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, where he will sign an already negotiated security agreement.
Wang’s 10 days-long itinerary is an emphatic statement by Beijing that it intends to entrench itself in the region, where it has been building influence for more than a decade.
Senior Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, have visited Pacific nations before but there has never been a high-profile minister making a trip of this dimension and length, and with so much overt geopolitical intent.
When you consider the extent of China’s global interests and the relatively small size of the Pacific countries, that tells you immediately that Beijing has ambitious long-term plans in the region.
Wang’s trip will be a teachable moment in that respect, as the agreements signed along the way will provide a valuable roadmap of Beijing’s priorities and, to a degree, what the countries themselves are willing to sign on to.
According to a Reuters report, Wang is aiming to sign a wide-ranging, region-wide pact covering everything from security, policing, trade and data. Such an agenda will send a shudder down spines in Canberra and harden the belief that Beijing’s longer-term agenda is even more ambitious, including the potential placement of military assets.
The timing of Wang’s trip is also pointed, coming on the heels of Australia’s vociferous, and unsuccessful, objections to the Solomons deal, and a similarly high-profile visit to the region in April by senior US officials led by Kurt Campbell, the White House’s Indo-Pacific tsar.
Wong leaves for Fiji on Thursday to see the prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, and make a speech at the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional body headquartered in Suva.
New Australian PM Anthony Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong arrive at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Monday, 23 May, 2022. Photograph: Fumine Tsutabayashi/AP
The trip has been arranged at speed to make sure Wong is there before her Chinese counterpart, who will be in the Solomons on the same day.
Wong arrives in Fiji with Australia in good standing, largely due to the provisions of vaccines which allowed the tourism-dependent country to break the Covid lockdown and re-open to foreign travel.
Fiji’s economic officials have also turned to Australia and Japan to raise government bond offerings in recent years, shunning China, whose loans are more expensive.
Apart from the added diplomatic spice of going head-to-head with the Wang visit, Wong will be able to offer her audiences something they have long demanded from Australia, a serious climate change policy.
So where does the duelling diplomacy leave Sino-Australian relations?
Xiao Qian, the Chinese ambassador in Canberra, has been making speeches and writing newspaper commentaries since his arrival in Canberra from Indonesia late last year, setting a newly positive tone.
“These [commentaries] also fit into a longer record of more optimistic messaging from Chinese diplomats in Australia that stretches back to the end of 2021,” says Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at the Australian National University.
Needless to say, Herscovitch adds, this relatively friendly tone has not been matched by the “wolf warrior” diplomats who command the podium at the daily press briefings at the ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing.
It is difficult to discern any substance to a possible rapprochement with Beijing. China will want a significant public concession of some kind from Australia but in the current climate it is nigh on impossible to deliver anything while Beijing keeps multiple trade sanctions in place.
While striking a positive tone, Xiao has also said that Beijing expects Australia to be “objective and rational” and “adopt a positive policy toward China”.
Translated, that means keeping quiet about issues that Beijing regards as sensitive, like Hong Kong, Xinjiang and human rights issues, something that Australia won’t do.
The Pacific diplomacy underlines that, however much either side tempers their rhetoric, regional competition is the name of the game. Certainly, that is Beijing’s priority, and everything is secondary.
As Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister and China specialist, noted in comments before the election, Beijing’s professed desire for better ties with Australia sits oddly with its diplomatic rush in the Pacific.
“I could not have prescribed a worse thing to do than say, ‘I know what we’re going to do, we’re going to announce or have agreed with our new best buddies in Honiara, this security pact with the government of Solomon Islands,’ ” Rudd said. “It is just politically illiterate for the Chinese party apparatus to have approved that as an approach.”
There is no reason that Australia shouldn’t restart ministerial level talks with Beijing. Our partners the US, Japan and India all have such channels open to them.
But nobody should mistake a resumption of such dialogue for a reset in bilateral relations. The coming week’s diplomatic frenzy in the Pacific should put an end to such notions for good.
• Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute