The two foreign visits that Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made this year, one week apart, between late October and early November, should be analyzed in light of the state of the Great World Game at the moment. From this vantage point, they comprise a truly amazing, twofold interconnected enterprise.
To begin with, because the visiting countries were its two primary participants, namely the United States (October 23-26) and the People’s Republic of China (November 4–7), the complicated set of interactions between them is currently at the center of the game table. To a greater or lesser degree, all other participants must track the evolution of these relationships and attempt to avoid “accidentally getting hurt” while they are feeling irate. And, if successful, to profit from the “battle of the giants.” It’s a perilous job, but someone might strike it rich.
Again, everyone else is doing the same thing. Including US allies, which form the infamous “Collective West” that has long existed only in the morbid imagination of propaganda’s hackneyed demagogues. The closest and most important allies of the United States, Japan and the top European nations, have demonstrated this in their recent foreign policy developments.
In this way, Australia is no exception. Prior to providing any commentary on the previously mentioned travels of its Prime Minister, it is helpful to briefly examine how Canberra’s foreign policy stance has changed over the previous ten to fifteen years. Generally speaking, Australia’s “general (foreign policy) line” changed roughly in time with the significant shifts occurring right now on the international scene.
The idea put forth by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Alfred Kissinger at the turn of the century and in the following decades, that the United States and China, who had already established themselves as the second global power, may form a G2, was still a viable concept. In light of this, it made sense for the Australian government, led by Labor leader Kevin Rudd at the time, to build ties with China without severing ties with the US. First of all in the area of trade. One could easily say that it is foreign trade, i.e. the overseas marketing of much-needed ’natural’ resources to all, that is one of the basic pillars of Australia’s prosperity. It turns out, is not the “service sector” at all but rather one of the primary elements of the “economy” category. For more than ten years, China has been the primary purchaser of Australian raw materials.
Canberra’s approach to preserving positive and constructive relations with Beijing did not significantly alter in the first year following the ruling political group’s affiliation switch from “center-left” to “center-right” in 2013. This is worth mentioning in light of the many accusations made against the previous center-right prime minister, Scott Morrison, for being solely to blame for the drastically worsening situation of PRC relations with Australia.
As the Treasurer until August 2018, he sang like a “nightingale” about the future of relations with China in 2016 when a government delegation visited the nation. Generally speaking, nothing especially unfavorable was seen against China in the first year following Scott Morrison’s appointment as prime minister in August 2018.
However, “something happened” behind the scenes of the world political theater at the start of 2019 and 2020. It appears as though an unseen individual has flicked the toggle switch on the “control panel” of the worldwide political movement. And so it began: the Skripals case, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Beijing’s alleged provocation of it, the Indian-Chinese border incident, the economic war with China (and Russia). Ultimately, armed conflicts in the Ukraine and now in the Middle East (the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia are the focus of attention). Add the apparent sabotage of one of the biggest international gas transportation pipelines along the way.
Apparently, Scott Morrison took all of this as the command “Fetch” and, for a brief period of time (about two weeks in the spring of 2020), was getting ahead of Washington in accusations against Beijing about the “Covid-19 pandemic”. Even though Scott Morrison rapidly abandoned these philippics from his public rhetoric, his last two years as head of the Australian government were characterized by some overtly anti-Chinese acts. The nation’s involvement in the creation of the AUKUS military-political triple configuration was the most noteworthy of them.
The primary driving force behind this operation was the desire of the two Anglo-Saxon “big brothers” to seize the contract for building new submarines for Australia from France, together with the necessary infrastructure. It appears that the “junior” was informed, approximately, of the following through back channels of communication: They’ve lost all sense of reason in their affluent backwater. Give the frogmen $60 billion so they can construct new submarines. You can give us your “Chinese” money to make it better for you.
Generally speaking, this is the political heritage of the “center-left,” which is currently governed by Anthony Albanese, who took office in May 2022. However, so much has changed in the global political landscape in the ten years since their last leadership that going back to “the way things were” with Australia’s foreign policy trajectory is now unthinkable. This is particularly demonstrated by the aforementioned number of summits in which Anthony Albanese and Joe Biden participated.
The Australian prime minister’s recent visit to the PRC was his first since the previously mentioned state visit in 2016. The very fact that this four-day tour of China still happened, despite Anthony Albanese’s noteworthy decision to visit more than just the country’s capital, speaks to the country’s current leadership’s desire to eliminate unnecessary (“irritating”) moments from the bilateral relationship system.
Nonetheless, we observe once more how this new tendency in Canberra’s policy on the Chinese direction coincides with significant shifts on the same global game table generally and in comparable “big brother” policies specifically. The NEO has recently observed a significant shift in public discourse in the United States concerning its two principal geopolitical adversaries, China and the Russian Federation. In addition to the aspects of the “containment strategy” still being prevalent in the policy towards the former, efforts are being made to show consideration for its interests and to keep channels of communication open.
In this sense, Anthony Albanese seemed to have served as Washington’s “goodwill envoy” while in China. Having spent a week in the United States beforehand, he must have been able to get some advice, if not instructions, from Washington, about the structure and key elements of the forthcoming trip to China.
It is equally likely, though, that it also discussed issues pertaining to Australia-China ties specifically. Which, as previously said, are mostly centered in the commerce and economic areas. In this regard, the first part of Anthony Albanese’s journey featured an important symbolism, which consisted of his presence at the inauguration of the 6th annual China International Import Expo (CIIE) which was held in Shanghai on November 5.
It should be mentioned that, among the many diverse international platforms established in China in recent years, the country’s government places a special emphasis on this exhibition. It practically serves as the primary symbol of a course to “openness”, consistently proclaimed by the PRC. Let us stress that this is true regardless of how a nation positions itself politically.
For instance, the Japanese news outlet Yomiuri Shimbun, highlights the specific CIIE symbols. Furthermore, despite a downturn in the country’s growth rates, the business community in Japan is prepared to respond to Beijing’s policies by continuing to invest in the Chinese economy, as indicated by some of the statements made by participants in the Japanese pavilion. Of all the foreign pavilions at CIIE, Japan’s principal ally’s pavilion is almost always the most representative.
Leader of China Xi Jinping met with the Australian guest the following day in Beijing. In the Global Times’ somewhat circumspect remarks regarding this meeting and the overall outcomes of Anthony Albanese’s much-discussed trip to China, the word “pragmatism” appears frequently.
The “restraint” expressed above in evaluations of the visit under discussion makes perfect sense, considering that just one week prior, Anthony Albanese, who was staying in Washington, had signed all the manifestly anti-Chinese statements that still, we reiterate, dominate Australia’s “big brother” policy toward China.
And how relations between the major players in the current phase of the Great World Game develop will also have a significant impact on Australia-China relations.
Regarding the latter’s evolution, at this point we are limited to conjecture.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.