In wintry Beijing, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong found the appropriate metaphor for the status of her country’s relations with its largest trading partner, China. She was walking through the courtyards of Beijing’s Diaoyutai state guest house with Australian Ambassador Graham Fletcher when her gaze fell on a pond whose icy surface glistened in the sun. “The ice is melting, but slowly,” she said, according to reports from the Australian press traveling with her.
The foreign minister’s visit to the Chinese capital on Wednesday was the first by an Australian cabinet member in three years. Before that, Chinese ministers could not be reached by the Australian interlocutors for many months. The government-level radio silence was just one of many measures Beijing had taken to punish Australians for their obstinacy.
The upset began when Australia became the first country to ban Chinese manufacturers from expanding 5G networks. In addition, the country questioned the activities of Chinese businessmen, associations, students and the media and enacted laws aimed at curbing attempts at “foreign” interference. Finally, Australia’s then Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of the corona virus. To the dismay of Beijing, the conservative politician explained that the investigators should be given similar powers to international weapons inspectors.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner
Above all, retailers of Australian consumer goods felt the consequences of this demand. They couldn’t get rid of the wines and lobsters they intended for China. Imports of barley and Australian beef, popular for its high quality, were also restricted. Then, two years ago, in Canberra, China submitted a list of fourteen counts to the government, including the Australian media’s “hostile” reports as a charge. Australian journalists were put under pressure in China and had to flee the country. Others didn’t make the jump, including Australian TV journalist Cheng Lei and former diplomat and activist Yang Hengjun. The two faced the judiciary in the wake of tensions between the two states.
Observers assume that they are being held in prison as a bargaining chip. Even before her talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, the Australian had dampened expectations that there would be progress on this and the various other controversial issues. “The sign of success is the dialogue itself,” said Wong, who is ethnically Chinese but grew up in Malaysia, upon arriving in Beijing. It was in Australia’s interest to “stabilize” relations with China, the Australian later told the press after her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. And Australia believes that it is also in China’s interest to stabilize relations. “We can expand our bilateral ties and safeguard our respective national interests if both countries skillfully navigate our differences,” Wong said.