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Xi-Albanese talks a warm return to normalcy, but awkward diplomatic dance to come

Chinese president praises Albanese's approach

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and President Xi Jinping have reopened dialogue between China and Australia at its highest levels.

Tuesday’s 32-minute meeting may signal the end of dysfunction, but experts said the goodwill would be more difficult to maintain in later talks given points of profound policy differences likely to still define the relationship.

Mr Albanese praised a “warm” and “very positive and constructive” return to communication as the first formal meeting between the two countries’ leaders in six years came at the G20 summit in Bali on Tuesday.

“Our bilateral relationship is an important one,” Mr Albanese said before the half-hour meeting.

“We have had our differences and Australia won’t resile from our interests or our values.”

Afterward, the PM said he spoke to Mr Xi about global warming and raised Australia’s position on maintaining the status quo in Taiwan, saying the countries had differences but worked better together.

He said he also mentioned the “blockages” in the Australian economy, or the $20 billion in trade sanctions imposed by China in 2020 after the Morrison government called for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.

“There are many steps, of course, that we are yet to take,” he said.

“It was not anticipated that a meeting such as that you get immediate declarations, and I believe if people thought that would happen, then that was not realistic,” he says.

Following an approach begun by his deputy and Beijing’s man in Canberra, President Xi sounded a conciliatory note in prepared remarks alluding to better times.

“China-Australia relations used to be in the forefront of China’s relations with developed countries for a long time,” he said.

“This is worth cherishing. In the past few years, China-Australia relationship has run into some difficulties. That was not what we were willing to see.’’

Relations between Australia and China reached a historic low in 2020 when official communications channels were cut. But pronounced differences on policy and alliances had already been evident for some time.

China was “ready to meet Australia halfway” on repairing the strained relationship, its state media said on Tuesday.

Deeper change ‘unrealistic’

But Professor David Goodman, head of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said that it was not clear what concessions Australia would be in a position to make.

“There are clearly some things we would like to see happen sooner rather than later,’’ Professor Goodman said.

“One of them is the lifting of sanctions which would, of course, also benefit the Chinese.

“And then the other thing we would like, I imagine, is to ensure that [CGTN journalist Cheng Mei] comes home.”

Professor Goodman said dialogue was important, but the extent of co-operation between the nations would be limited by a view that it would involve a trade-off.

“Under Howard and even Abbott we had a fairly robust relationship with China,” he said.

“They are not just our No.1 export market by a large margin, but they are also our largest source of imports.”

But he said differences grew sharper since the banning of Chinese investments in Australian technology and on the technology company Huawei from building public investments.

The prospect of deeper change was limited by Australia’s security policy, he said.

“It’s totally not realistic because the government is currently in thrall to its alliance with the United States,” he said.

Tuesday’s engagement came without the usual substantial agenda briefed in advance of meetings between heads of government.

Ice-breaker

Benjamin Herscovitch from the ANU National Security College said that reflected its unusual purpose after Beijing’s anger at the previous government brought communications to an end.

“That tells you that the key outcome to this meeting is the meeting itself,” he said.

“It’s more a breaking of the ice.”

More substantial co-operation, he said, would be held back by a range of differences ranging from the strategic contest in the Pacific and consular cases.

“The Albanese government has been more assertive on China than the Morrison government,” he said.

“[Foreign Minister Penny Wong] on a semi-regular basis has been talking about security for the Pacific being provided by the Pacific itself. And the implication of that is that China doesn’t have a legitimate security role to play in the Pacific.”

Any lifting of trade restrictions was likely to be piecemeal, he said, in keeping with China’s economic interests.

“We could have this kind of messy, long-term protracted negotiation where neither side probably gets entirely what it wants,” he said.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the recognition of China by Gough Whitlam.

The move was then a radical break with foreign policy orthodoxy since the end of China’s civil war and the Kuomintang retreat to Taiwan in 1949.

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