What do we know now about President Xi Jinping and his views of China's relationship with Australia that we didn't know before he came to the G20 Summit and stayed for a bilateral visit, part of which was speaking to the members of the Australian parliament today?
The first thing to take away is something that was already appreciated. He likes us. He has been here five times. He talks about Australia with more than just courteous appreciation. Even before elected members, he is effusive about the diversity, the cultural and educational links and the good image Australia has back in China. Not only does he like us, he wants us to know it. This explains Xi's less guarded manner of speaking today than his register in the US or the EU.
The second thing is that he sees a relationship which is good and which he has used political and diplomatic capital to improve. Before Xi's speech, Australia was accorded 'strategic partnership' status. Now it is promoted one level above this: 'Comprehensive strategic partnership.' And added to the the bilateral and strategic dialogues that Australia and China have established to deliver a broader relationship, they will now have a wide ranging free-trade agreement.
But Xi has made it clear that there needs to be more diversification, and one of the routes to diversification is finance and services. Xi's recognition of Australia as a place where this sort of business can be done for Chinese today is a big deal. Now it is up to us to re-imagine our relationship with China along lines that are broader than just exporting resources and foodstuffs. If we go this way, we are pushing on an open door.
This is especially so because Xi clearly wants us to get closer, beyond matters of commerce. He referred to the toughest issue of all – security — in terms of both countries needing to maintain peace and stability in the region, and creating 'political trust'. His words here about China's role as a preserver of peace and security show that Xi sees Australia as key potential regional security partner, and a country which needs to have a concept of the China relationship in which we can talk to China more about these issues, and at least identify clearly where our interests are different from those of the US.
Xi also made it clear that he sees Australia as a partner for China in its internal development. The centennial goals of creating a middle-income society by 2020 and preparing for the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party are already starting to figure heavily in Chinese leaders' speeches. We need to think of ways Australia can be a partner in this, working intellectually, economically, and geo-politically with China as it tries to answer some of its sustainability issues, creating an urban middle class and a higher value-added economy. Xi's words today show that there is a role here for Australian enterprises, partnerships and ideas.
This brings us to the final take-away point. With all these opportunities and warm words, what is the mindset Xi has most forcefully revealed? It can be summarised in one simple sentence: for Australian economic prosperity, security and growth, China matters hugely, and its current leader knows this. Xi's speech was littered with evidence of just how mutually dependent we are becoming, and how inevitable is the deepening of this dependence. Cascades of impressive economic statistics fell from his lips: over 50% of China's iron ore comes from Australia; we have 200,000 Chinese students here; every third dollar we get from export earnings comes from the People's Republic.
Xi didn't say it, but it was clear in all his words: look up, down, left and right, wherever you are in Australia, and China is present as a trading partner, a source of growth, of tourists, of students.
President Xi came to Canberra to deliver a simple message. We are here, and we are not going away (and by the way, we are not going to go soft on our territorial demands). Xi's final point: Australia and China 'should be more more visionary and set more ambitious goals.' Over to you, Mr Abbott – the ball is in your court.
Photo courtesy of @TonyAbbottMHR.