Opinion piece by Steve Howard – Prime Minister Albanese goes to China, sorting oats from chaff

Those who work for global and regional peace and stability should not underestimate the strategic as well as practical success of the recent visit to China by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.  Time will tell.  However, given the extent of the Foundation’s engagement with both sides over many years and in the run-up to the visit, the early readout is promising.

The implications are deeper than an important reset of rocky bilateral trade relations and threats to the economic security of both nations.  Of course, commerce matters and Australian resources will continue to power China’s further industrialisation.  Lobsters and wine will soon be back on Chinese tables and Chinese students and tourists will return to Australia in increasing numbers.  Australia’s continuing prosperity is assured – at least for the time being.

What transpired in Beijing, however, was more subtle and profound, and required months and even years of statecraft and patient efforts on both sides, from within and outside governments.  As a consequence, the visit was a relative triumph of mutual understanding and calibrated response to each other’s respective national interests, after a de-stabilising period.  In a wider sense, it offers a glimpse of something rare and against trend these days: the possibility of ‘win-win’, of two vastly different yet complementary states reaching a shared accommodation about their world views, a ‘respectful stability pact’, if you like, that could also serve as a model for imagining the future contours of East-West relations and as a helpful basis for renewed global cooperation to address universal threats, such as that posed by climate change.

As is all too obvious, we’re living through a time when the world is fracturing along multiple fault lines – human, political, economic and environmental.  Clearly, a slippery slope that would ultimately end in mutually assured destruction is unsustainable.  Rather, this should be a time for healing, as our planet increasingly reminds us, a time for virtue and for genuine dialogue between civilisations, for an effective remaking of globalisation to retain its upsides, for creative engagement and flourishing to better serve the greater global common good.

China has arrived – or, as it says, returned – as a world power, seeking to contest and contribute to a new settlement about what constitutes the world order and China’s rightful role in it.  In this respect, China is not alone.  Asia is now the most significant global economic zone and Africa and Latin America are rising.  The global South, the nations of the developing world, who were long subject to the rules set by the dominant West, is now an increasingly concerted and impactful voice, demanding a greater say and fair share, commensurate with its increasing economic weight.  While the Western-led G20 and G7 groupings struggle to find shared purpose, the BRICS and other non-Western configurations are growing in their solidarity.

It is deeply uncomfortable for many in the West to come to terms with this historic re-balancing in world power, to realise that the familiar and relatively benign conditions afforded by decades of prosperity it has enjoyed cannot be presumed to continue on the same basis.

This is not to suggest that the West should defensively circle the wagons.  Rather it is to say that this is the very moment when those in the West – not just politicians, but leaders from across society – who wish to shape a positive vision for a shared global future should instead revisit and refresh what it is the West stands for, what it has to offer and how it should best contribute to navigating and negotiating this new world order, in partnership with the non-Western world.

Australia and Australians have long form in this regard, in working effectively with China (as well as Asia in general) over decades as it has grown its economy and progressively emerged onto the world stage.  What is not well understood is that China, too, needs just this kind of partnership, as it comes to terms with its rights and responsibilities as a global nation, where Australia can be a helpful friend.  China and Australia have major common interests – both rely upon effective globalisation to succeed, moreso than many other nation states.  And with the most important trade agreement of the Asia Pacific region, which China wants to join, it knows that Australia, more than any other member nation, can be China’s most influential supporter, as it was with WTO accession 20 years ago.

And, in Australia, China has a partner that itself can relate to the concerns of the global South – after all, even though it is a rich, developed nation, Australia, unlike nearly all other Western nations, shares its geography and much of its destiny with nations of the global South, living in the same neighbourhoods as Indonesia, East Timor, PNG and the Pacific.

It may have been the way the cards fell, however there was also great symbolism in PM Albanese visiting China in between visits to Washington and to the Pacific Islands.

This was the bigger picture, the underlying and hopefully enduring story to the Prime Minister’s meetings with the Chinese leadership.  They agreed a renewed basis for constructive engagement based upon seeking peace and stability and overlaying all of this, a new, vital lens of sustainability, a commitment to focus on the green economy, on joint action on climate change and the betterment of the global commons.

Imagine if this refreshed frame could not only serve the bilateral relationship well, but could also jointly inspire and engage other powers, large and small, in a positive re-calibration of a sustainable world economy?

Steve Howard is Secretary General of The Global Foundation

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