The Prime Minister’s four ring circus trip to China was the biggest, the best and – to borrow from the Roger Moore Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me – it was Gillard and beyond. China Ambassador Frances Adamson and her team pulled it off organisationally without any visible hitches, a substantial achievement.
The pity is that Gillard didn’t mount a trip of this scope when she came in 2011, the heavyweight politicians (they will have pleased to get a good look at Labor’s likely next leader in Bill Shorten) and relatively extensive itinerary send the message the Chinese – and I would hope Australians - want. We are engaged and interested and we want more.
But the early stumbles – the first of three major speeches missed its mark, the second at a Communist Party training school in Shanghai was dull and forgettable will be forgotten after her triumph in elevating Australia’s formal contact with the country with whose destiny we are inextricably and increasingly linked to a yearly summit.
It’s an idea that has been pushed by diplomats for years and comes after Australia’s relationship with China has been buffeted and damaged in recent years with Gillard’s failure to take responsibility for it from the day she knifed her boss and Rudd’s failure to capitalise on his years in China and fluent Mandarin, contributing factors.
Gillard’s China visit was a trip of two halves but it’s the second one you want to be ahead at the end, of so we will put the trip firmly in the win column.
Not only was the trip big but the Prime Minister was keen to remind everyone about just how big the trip was, a little guilt about her neglect of China perhaps. It has been a heavyweight parliamentary delegation one PM, three Cabinet Ministers (countless bag carriers and flunkies) - the PM certainly raised the bar this visit, but it would not have been very hard. Bob Carr has seemed a bit surplus to requirements up until now but yesterday he met China’s top two foreign affairs officials State Councillor Yang Jiechi (newly promoted from Foreign Minister) and Yang’s replacement the well-regarded Japanese-speaker Wang Yi. Carr may have been better off on his own trip in a month or two to spread the love a bit more evenly but one suspects he did not have much say in the matter.
To help the biggest passenger jet in the RAAF fleet (an Airbus A330) was drafted into service to move the masses, it must rank either near or at the very top of travelling parties in terms of total people numbers (including a couple of dozen media representatives and a dozen or so Air Force crew). For the record, the food, wine and service was all terrific and the crew friendly, competent and generally impressive. The PM and ministers moved around the cabin chatting to the media pack; Carr was particularly entertaining on the Sanya-Shanghai leg but what goes on tour….I can also recommend the blinding efficiency of being in a motorcade that runs from the tarmac to the hotel, its the upsides of these authoritarian governments that can turn all those red lights green at will and just for you. Shanghai and Beijing traffic has never looked less daunting.
It was a big trip for Gillard too. Her first trip in April 2011 (and first in government) was to Beijing only and embarrassingly short, especially in light of the two year wait for a second visit. She was nervous – as you would be in the wake of Hurricane Kevin who lefty a trail of damage in Beijing during his tenure -and on that visit neither brought or took away nothing. It was a waste. Two years have improved her grasp of geopolitics and presentation skills generally but the podium is not her natural habitat and her office has had to spend so much time and energy fighting fires, as many of her media staff seem unable to capitalize on good news.
If there was a logistically more complex and difficult trip, no-one could name it although much of that wound was self-inflicted due to the decision to go to the awkwardly sited Bo’ao Forum for Asia. There was a late swap of the western city of Chendgu where Gillard was to have opened the Australian consulate, an overdue fifth in China (counting Hong Kong). There were administrative problems of some kind with the lease but she should have gone in any case. It’s been 18 months since the announcement, the Consul General has been appointed although not named and it would have made a better statement to the Chinese and Australian business as the next wave of growth in China (and Australian prosperity) is coming from its inland western provinces. It would have aced the largely wasted 15 hours Shanghai (meeting with the Party Secretary aside) which looked like the add-on it was.
Still, there was a strong message about financial services and Australia’s eagerness to bring our expertise (and financial services companies) to China boosted by the presence of ANZ’s Mike “Mr Asia” Smith and his Westpac counterpart Gail Kelly who only made her first trip to China three years ago (that still puts her ahead of many Australian CEOs and senior executives).
But Gillard saved the best for last – and indeed was so determined to try and keep the news in the can until yesterday she and her office almost shot off all their toes - the announcement of annual formal meeting between the Australian Prime Minister and Chinese Premier - as well as a strategic economic dialogue between Australia’s Treasurer and the head of the National Development and Reform Commission, China top economic ministry. There will also be an annual dialogue between the countries two Foreign Affairs Ministers.
This see’s Australia move up a good peg up the relationship ladder though its not the only country to hold annual talks China, US have at a number of levels (although not leader) and indeed we have with the US (AUSMIN) and others. While it formalizes something that already by and large happens by dint of meetings on the sidelines of G20/APEC and the like. The new dialogue is overdue and goes some way to repair the “she’ll be right” attitude of the past five years. Australia’s success in building the people to people relationships through more informal but regular will be the real test of success. But this, particularly from the Chinese side, gives the imprimatur for that to charge ahead now.
Having not made it to China as Education Minister Gillard made some amends yesterday with a high school visit and dinner with tertiary education representatives. It’s her long-time personal focus area and a vital cog in the Australia-China relationship with the $16 billion international student market our second biggest export, the iron ore of our services export sector. The sector where Australia was the global first mover/innovator has been in turmoil over the past three years falling into a perfect storm; its competitiveness due to high fees, the soaring dollar and intense competition from the US particularly, reputational damage due to poor regulation of the sector’s bottom tier and poor/badly co-ordinated government policy in immigration/education. China represents about 25 per cent of the market so it’s critical. It’s been on the decline for the past three years and this has hit some universities hard although the situation appears to have been stabilized and early signs show indicate numbers up this year. We can’t get complacent about this again, as we did especially on the reputational stuff where any more than one strike in the bad box could see serious long term damage.
At Chenjunglun High School in inner Beijing she answered personal questions and others that had a surprising focus on the environment, as stage managed as these are the interest in and awareness of the environment in China is surging and I suspect unstoppable. It’s suddenly got equal billing with economic growth and China’s efforts to halt, ameliorate and repair the untold damage that reaches into every corner of the country will be critical to the nation’s future.
Tony Abbott won’t have been pleased with at least one of the choices in the collection of Australian novels and non-fiction titles that Gillard presented to the school, climate change sceptic bête-noire Tim Flannery’s The Weather Eaters.
Gillard got both sides of the fame coin in Beijing yesterday, a city which has a habit of handing out lessons to unsuspecting Foreigners. First there was the dark side when snap happy Chinese attendees threatened to get out of control after – of all things – an Australian Chamber of Commerce business lunch. One you agreed to one snap with a fan, where do you stop?
But the upside of being PM is that you also get an immaculately drilled honour guard and marching band in Tiananmen Square as she did in the late afternoon when she met with Li. It’s been windy and cool in Beijing (it’s sandstorm season) but unusually clear the past few days.
Almost three years into her Prime Ministership, Gillard has finally looked as though she is serious about Australia’s most important foreign relationship, China is much more complex and far, far more difficult than the US. The Asian Century White Paper was policy-lite, a waste of taxpayer’s money and most importantly a missed opportunity. Gillard has unforgiveably allowed things to drift both politically, economically with nil movement on a Freed Trade Agreement and governemnt’s political expediency in refusing to actively agitate in any serious way on behalf of Chinese Australians Matthew Ng, Charlotte Chou and Du Zuying (and perhaps others the government won’t tell us about) who have been denied justice and liberty and had the Chinese government sign off on the theft of their assets by Communist Party officials and their friends. These people have had their families shattered .This is a disgrace, Australian citizens deserve better.
Government officials will deny this until they are purple but you can bet that if it was in some other developing nation it would be a different story.
And while the concrete result of this trip has been most encouraging the signing and talking is the easy bit, it’s making our new “strategic partnership” work for us economically and security-wise that’s the real test. So the hard work starts now.