China’s red carpet treatment for “handsome boy” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese offered an intriguing blueprint for Beijing’s shifting approach to international diplomacy.
Albanese was given a gala welcome to Beijing this week, with a smiling President Xi Jinping promising Australia and China could become “trusted partners” and collaborate on everything from climate change to regional security.
Premier Li Qiang (李強) went one step further, referencing a clip shared widely on Chinese social media of the Australian leader on a jog.
“People were saying that we have a handsome boy coming from Australia,” he joked.
It was a high point in ties when compared to three years ago, when China’s brand of “wolf warrior” diplomacy hit a nadir as a prominent official tweeted a staged image of a man dressed as an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to an Afghan child’s throat.
China slapped tariffs on a slew of Australian goods like barley, beef and wine, and halted imports of its coal — hitting billions of dollars in trade — as it railed against Canberra’s calls for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and probes into Chinese espionage.
Beijing’s diplomacy at the time offered an uncompromising message to vulnerable middle powers like Australia: play ball or face damaging economic coercion.
But analysts now say Beijing has changed course, opting for the carrot over the stick as its economy sputters and public disapproval of China internationally reaches historic highs.
“Beijing now recognises that its economic coercion and offensive wolf warrior diplomacy were failures,” Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese politics at the Asia Society, told AFP.
While Beijing had sought to coerce Canberra away from the United States, Thomas said, the policy had the opposite effect: It “pushed Canberra further toward Washington and hurt China’s own economy.”
Trouble at home
China is also embracing warmer ties with the United States, after rifts over trade, national security and the self-ruled island of Taiwan brought relations to their lowest ebb in decades.
Xi will visit the United States next week, on his first trip there in over six years. He is set to meet U.S. President Joe Biden and attend an Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit.
“We have 1,000 reasons to improve China-U.S. relations, but not one reason to ruin them,” Xi told U.S. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer last month.
And Albanese is far from the first foreign leader visiting China this year to find themselves at the receiving end of that charm offensive.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, found himself greeted by a horde of screaming fans on a visit in April.
One “possible reason for the change in Chinese diplomacy has been Beijing’s efforts to deal with an increasingly difficult domestic economy, where youth unemployment is at a record high,” Tom Harper, a scholar of China’s foreign policy, wrote in The Conversation this year.
“It can also be seen as an effort to establish more partnerships internationally, rather than antagonize the entire Western world,” he said.
Speak softly with a big stick
But beyond the smiles, whether or not anyone is convinced by the new approach is another question — as is whether good optics can transform into tangible outcomes.
Despite the flattery for Albanese this week, “there are still areas where Australia and China’s perspectives do not align,” Bec Strating, associate professor of international relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, told AFP.
“We see Australia, particularly in areas of security and defense, still moving a lot closer to Washington,” she said.
Pressed this week in Beijing on whether he “trusts” Xi, Albanese instead insisted the Chinese leader had kept his word so far.
And there are few illusions that Xi is deviating from core national goals, regardless of the rhetoric placed in front of them.
“Xi still wants to achieve China’s national rejuvenation as the world’s leading power,” said Thomas, of the Asia Society.
“But he is now going back to an earlier strategy of pursuing this goal through deeper diplomatic and economic exchanges.”