Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is set to arrive in Australia for a five-day visit this evening.
He will bring with him a large business delegation who are aiming to strengthen economic ties with Australia and extend the countries’ free trade agreement.
In face of an isolationist Trump administration, the Chinese want to use this trip to send a message that China are champions of free trade.
But for decades Australia has had to balance US strategic aims with economic interests in China — our biggest trading partner.
Many are saying it is time to choose and are calling for a new approach.
When Chinese leaders come to Australia there is always debate and tension about when and where talk of democratic and human rights might surface.
The Chinese applauded former prime minister John Howard because he doggedly stuck to the business of trade and economic growth, but they found Mandarin-speaking former prime minister Kevin Rudd troublesome because he raised human rights.
So they were confused when that they heard Foreign Minister Julie Bishop say last week in Singapore China could not lead the region because it was “undemocratic”.
It’s not what they wanted to hear, and former ambassador to China Geoff Raby says its hinders our relationship.
He says in Beijing we could be viewed as an unreliable partner and even as a potential adversary.
“There’s been a high degree of ambivalence on our relationship about how we respond to their rise and their presence in region. That’s manifested itself in the ham-fisted way we dealt with the invitation to become a founding member of Asian infrastructure development bank and our quite strident position in public about South China Sea that is way ahead of our regional neighbours,” he says.
Mr Raby says we have to decide whether to fully cooperate with China or stand apart.
“That ultimately is the big issue with China. We have to sought out how we want to deal with them and how we view them. It makes it difficult for us to have much influence over China’s actions and of course China is not going to go away. It’s going to get bigger and be an ever-increasing dominant power in the region,” he says.
At a briefing, Vice Foreign Affairs Minister Zheng Zeguang spent most of his time talking about the great opportunities Australia has on the economic front.
The message to journalists in attendance was that if it concentrates on trade and growth, Australia can share in the great riches to be made from China’s booming middle class — tipped to be 500 million next decade.
A focus on practical cooperation in the fields of trade, investment, energy, resources, education and tourism was the best way, he said.
The vice-minister gently reminded the journalists present that it was best for Australia to stick to the script and not to mention the South China Sea, or China’s lack of human or democratic rights.
“We wish our Australian friends would uphold the spirit and abandon this mentality of ‘you lose, I win’, zero-sum game, or the ideological prejudices — they have to correct their view on China,” he said.
But other China watchers say that by now the Chinese expect and are used to Australia raising democratic and human rights and it has little impact on them or what they do.
“I think they expect it and it’s part of normal diplomatic dialogue. I don’t think it has any impact on economic decisions made,” the Lowy Institute’s Meriden Varall says.
“It also feeds into their persecution mentality that they will be criticised by Western countries at some point so it has no impact really.”
Since Mr Li came last came to Australia in 2009 as vice-premier, China’s economy has almost doubled in size and the superpower has become the dominant regional player.
Its expected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will announce the next stage of the China free trade deal during the visit, binding us ever closer to our biggest trading partner.
By Matthew Carney