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analysis: The subtle — and not so subtle — signs Beijing is serious about repairing the relationship with Canberra

By Bang Xiao
Posted , updated 
China and Australia's foreign ministers have met twice in under two months.(ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser)

China's foreign minister Wang Yi was early for the meeting with his Australian counterpart Penny Wong in Bali two months ago.

In Chinese culture, the act of waiting shows genuineness and friendliness.

Given recent history, showing up early is not what Australia might have expected from China's top diplomat.

Canberra had been left waiting for almost two years during a diplomatic freeze, hoping officials Beijing would pick up the phone.

Wang's meeting with Wong during the G20 was the first encounter at a ministerial level between the two countries since 2019.

They apparently had a lot to discuss. The meeting exceeded its scheduled length and was Wang's longest official meeting on the sidelines of the event.

Penny Wong previously met with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Indonesia in July.(Supplied: Australian Embassy in Jakarta)

Now, 77 days later, Wang and Wong have met again, this time on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

It's a moment that could be a critical turning point in China's relations with Australia.

After the meeting, Wong was keen not to present the resumption of talks as a panacea which would magically remove the tensions deeply entrenched in the relationship.

"It was another constructive meeting," she said.

"I think it is a long road in which many steps will have to be taken by both parties to a more stable relationship."

Still, from zero ministerial dialogue to two meetings in almost as many months, it appears small steps are being taken to repair the relationship.

But any optimism for rapprochement must be tempered — at practical level, nothing has changed.

Two Australians, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, remain detained in China, and trade sanctions are still in place.

Beijing's military ambitions for Taiwan and its human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims are also sources of tension for Australia and the region.

But as an auspicious event looms on the calendar, the time is ripe for a reset.

Could a Xi-Albanese meeting be on the cards? 

The 50th anniversary of Australia-China relations is on December 21.

There are whispers the date is seen by the Chinese side as an opportunity to demonstrate warmer ties. 

Especially if a meeting — official or not — occurs between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in the intervening months.

An opportunity is coming up at the G20 leaders' summit in Bali In November, which Xi and Albanese are both expected to attend. 

It would be the first top-level engagement between China and Australia in about five years.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was the last Australian leader to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Supplied: Twitter)

Beijing is demonstrating a shift in tone, perhaps signalling a different attitude towards the Labor government.

The fact that the Labor party is in power is significant for Beijing — it was under Labor in the early 1970s that Canberra switched from Taipei to recognise Beijing as the official representative of China, a move also made by the United States.

Any decisions that Beijing and Canberra make between now and then could dramatically shift the dynamic.

The next three months will be a big test for both.

From wolf-warriors to subtle messaging

Wang can be seen as a mouthpiece for Xi — the way he interacted with Wong would have been under strict instruction to reflect the president's will.

Once China's ambassador to Japan, Wang was tasked with the delicate mission of fixing the cracks between Beijing and Tokyo.

His diplomatic style has changed since being appointed as China's Foreign Minister in 2013.

As Xi's messenger on the global stage, Wang is now viewed as one of the key proponents of Beijing's "wolf-warrior" diplomacy.

That makes the meetings with Wong all the more significant.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to retire in March next year.(Reuters: Greg Baker/File)

But Xi's messenger in Australia – the newly posted ambassador Xiao Qian — has departed from the wolf-warrior trope.

Xiao has pitched himself as a facilitator of closer bonds between the two countries.

Although he has weighed in on the Taiwan issue – which could have serious security ramifications for Australia – he has also been sending a subtle but significant message to Australians.

"When there is really a wish and will from both sides, I would love to see a top-level meeting between our two countries," Xiao told the ABC's 7.30 program earlier this month.

That mention of a top-level meeting possibly signals a one-on-one between Xi and Albanese.

"We have to make sure that it is going to be a constructive one instead of a destructive one … what I would like to see is we have some favourable atmosphere to be created," Xiao said.

"Nobody should set a precondition for the other side."

This is a significant shift in the rhetoric – in June, Xiao suggested that the previous government took the "the first shot" in damaging relations by banning Chinese tech company Huawei from Australia's 5G network.

The suggestion there should be "no precondition" is a marked departure from Beijing's previous messaging, which insisted that improvement in the relationship must be on China's terms and that the blame was squarely at Australia's feet for the worsening ties.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Penny Wong urges China to end trade blockages against Australia.

Creating a 'favourable atmosphere'

Xiao knows what a "favourable atmosphere" looks like.

In his latest public appearance at the Australia China Business Council networking day last week, he told Australian businesses that they had "an important role to play".

The former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia is no stranger to re-establishing cooperative frameworks, and sought to do so during a low point in Beijing's relations with Jakarta in 2017.

For him, the key for these frameworks is business – from infrastructure to marine affairs, to COVID-19 vaccines, his role in improving China-Indonesia relations has been undoubtedly significant.

When he took up his new role in Canberra, Xiao didn't emulate Beijing's wolf-warrior style.

Instead, the ambassador has been on something of a media blitz — he has spoken at the National Press Club, had a visit to the ABC's headquarters in June, and taken part in a robust live interview on the ABC's 7.30 earlier this month.

Beijing's state-owned media has continued its criticism against Australia's nuclear submarine deal under AUKUS.

But Xiao has been highlighting the positives.

"Now we have a good momentum," he said.

"The Chinese side is ready to work together with the Australian side … so that we could indeed put our relationship back on the right track at an early date."

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