The strategic partnership between Australia and China announced yesterday has been a long 24 months in the making. As with any initiative requiring the approval of senior Chinese leaders, there have been fits and starts along the way. Less than a month ago, when the countdown to Julia Gillard's departure to China had begun, the Prime Minister's Office was still in a state of suspense. There was no certainty that the Chinese hosts were prepared to make a commitment in time before Gillard's visit to China.
When Gillard visited China for the first time as Australian prime minister in April 2011, she mentioned in passing to her hosts the need for a more structured relationship. In March 2012 she sent a letter to then-President Hu Jintao proposing that the countries solidify their relations by committing to a regular high-level dialogue. DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson was sent to Beijing in August 2012 to follow up on the proposal. All the while, senior Australian leaders and diplomats kept the issue alive in meetings with their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese did not reject the idea but were non-committal.
China's sluggish response was presumably a result of a general slowdown in decision-making amid the leadership transition in China.
First, the new leaders of the Communist Party of China had to be decided at the Party Congress in November 2012. After that, the government realignment was negotiated, culminating in the National People's Congress (NPC) in early March. Consequently, the appointments of the new State Councilor in charge of foreign policy (Yang Jiechi) and China's new foreign minister (Wang Yi) were announced on 16 March.
Only after the conclusion of the NPC did the Australian foreign policy officials involved in the process start to breathe more freely: Gillard and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke by phone and it was evident that China was ready to announce the establishment of the strategic partnership during Gillard's visit.
Until now, Australia's political relationship with China has been far less developed than its economic relationship. As I argued in a June 2012 Lowy Institute Policy Brief, Australia-China Ties: In Search of Political Trust, the lack of a senior-level dialogue that focuses on political and strategic issues as well as economic ties is detrimental to Australia's interests. Australian and Chinese leaders must have a platform to regularly discuss both bilateral and regional issues.
Gillard and her team, including Australia's Ambassador in Beijing Frances Adamson, deserve credit for providing that platform. An annual meeting between the respective prime ministers, as well as annual cabinet-level strategic dialogues focusing on foreign policy and economics, comprise an impressive package. It was no easy feat to gain traction within the Chinese bureaucracy so soon after the new Chinese Government was announced.
Photo courtesy of @JuliaGillard.