Rhetoric and Reality — Xi Jinping’s Australia Policy

Australia-China bilateral relations have experienced something of a roller-coaster ride since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Year. With the advent of the Tony Abbott-led Coalition Government in September 2013, recalibration of the relationship has been ongoing. Australia’s traditional alliance with the United States, a newfound Abbott-inspired BFF-relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a series of regional and economic issues and flash-points, have led Australia to work hard on re-considering its demeanour regarding China both as a rising regional and as a global power.

In an environment in which the mainstream Australian media, like that of other climes, is obsessed with the transient and superficial, more in-depth consideration of Chinese strategic thinking in the public sphere is rare and of uneven quality. At a time when the People’s Republic is led by a focussed, articulate and empowered leader, Xi Jinping, Australia can ill afford incoherent and contradictory policy positions. Self-congratulation, something much treasured by governments, can easily occlude real problems.

In recent months, Xi and his policy thinkers have been more cogent in articulating and advancing China’s interests and formulating long-term strategies; this replaces the often reactive and ill-coordinated efforts of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era (2002-2012). Nonetheless, at times the one-man collective has created something of a ‘word salad’ as new ideas and concepts are thrown up willy-nilly, then formulated, re-considered and re-articulated. All of this can be difficult to follow and its meaning hard to divine. But, gradually, a more sophisticated regional strategy seems to be taking shape, one in which punitive behaviour and Mao-esque outbursts will perhaps be more carefully modulated. It remains to be seen how this will be sustained, especially in light of continuing regional challenges to China’s ‘core national interests’. Of course, Xi-era policies are, overall, still backed up by the kind of rhetorical rigidity typical of the party-state’s general approach to the world: one in which the Party can do no wrong, in which it eternally occupies the moral high-ground in all matters, is ever-ready to take offence and invariably responds to most negative situations with the tone of high-dudgeon. The most carefully articulated policy thinking and nuanced language (such as the ‘four thises’ and the ‘three thats’) can unravel when moral vituperation and surprising unilateral behaviour scares the neighbours.

The following essay undertakes a close reading of China’s approach to Australia under Xi Jinping, who rose to power in November 2012. It can be fruitfully read in conjunction with the fact-sheet ‘China Policy Under the Abbott Government‘ recently released by the Australia-China Research Institute of the University of Technology Sydney.

The author of this study, Neil Thomas, is an inaugural George E Morrison Scholar at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), where he is undertaking research on Australia-China foreign policy and working on a revised and expanded version of our Australia-China Story. In 2013, Neil co-authored a paper on Australia’s China policy that was awarded first prize in CIW’s New Voices Competition, he also served for three years as National Publications Director of the Australia-China Youth Association (ACYA), establishing the Journal of Australia-China Affairs. He is a recent honours graduate of the University of Western Australia, where he was a Fogarty Scholar, and studied at Tsinghua University on a Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award. — Geremie R Barmé, Director, CIW


Australia is a country that often can be ‘hard of listening’. We may hear China’s words, but seldom do we pay close attention to what is being said. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s mistaken belief that visiting Chinese leader Xi Jinping 习近平 made an ‘historic statement’ last November, committing China to full democracy by 2050, is but an extreme example.

Xi Smirking at Abbott.

Xi Jinping and Tony Abbott, November 2014

Ironically, Abbott’s misinterpretation of Xi’s boilerplate remarks on democracy with Chinese characteristics received far more domestic and international coverage than Xi’s substantive speech to the Australian parliament and his formal speech at the state dinner that followed thereafter. After all, Xi said to his fellow diners: ‘We need to put one’s self into the other’s shoes and look at each other’s intention from the other side’s standpoint of view’.

This is precisely what the Australian media did not do while heaping praise on the Abbott government for the announcement of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and upgraded bilateral relationships to that of a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ 全面战略伙伴关系. Curiously absent from news reports of Australia’s ‘unqualified triumph’ was any analysis of China that delved into the Chinese foreign policy lying below Xi’s diplomatic rhetoric.

Xi with arm around Abbott

Xi and Abbott in celebration, November 2014

National interest should be driving Australia’s engagement with China. Understanding why China wants to improve relations is essential to any serious calculation of Australia’s national interest.

This essay examines how Australia is portrayed in Chinese foreign policy discourse by the Xi administration (November 2012-). It analyses Xi’s foreign policy speeches, literature on Xi’s November 2014 visit to Australia and Chinese media reports on Xi’s regional diplomacy. The analysis relies on authoritative, official party-state media outlets, in particular the People’s Daily 人民日报 and Xinhua News Agency 新华社.

Australia: A Small Part of the China Dream

Xi’s foreign policy is based on the idea of the ‘China Dream’ 中国梦. The goal of the China Dream is ‘to realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ 实现中华民族的伟大复兴的中国梦.

The landmarks on the way to achieving the China Dream are what Xi has called China’s ‘Two Centenary Goals’ 两个一百年: that is, to ‘comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society’ 全面建成小康社会 (defined as doubling 2010 GDP and per capita income) by the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021; and, to ‘build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious’ 建成富强、民主、文明、和谐的社会主义现代化国家 by the centenary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.

This chronologically calibrated framework makes clear that the primary focus of the Communist Party under Xi is to raise the overall living standards of the Chinese people. Ultimately, China’s party-state is concerned with domestic affairs, and its long-term viability on the home front.

Having said that, however, enhancing China’s ‘comprehensive national might’ 综合国力 and prosperity increasingly depends on access to resources, greater volumes of trade and major investment outside China. And, compared to the former party leader Hu Jintao 胡锦涛, Xi is moving quickly to prioritise foreign policy as an essential aspect of his domestic agenda. In October 2013, for example, he convened the first-ever Periphery Diplomacy Work Forum. A year later, in November 2014, he chaired a significant Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, the first since 2006. On both occasions, the Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo were present for the ‘important speeches’ 重要讲话 [it should go without saying that all of Chairman Xi’s speeches are ‘important’; indeed, to date the three-in-one Chairman’s wisdom is now collectively summed up as his ‘Serial Important Speeches’ 系列重要讲话 — Ed.] made by Xi on the necessity for China to secure its growth by creating a ‘more enabling international environment’.

Fostering a more enabling international environment means trying to modulate the international order so that it better accommodate China’s interlinked economic, political and security interests. In this endeavour, Xi’s major ‘strategic conception’ 战略构想 is the One Belt One Road 一带一路 (1B1R) initiative, consisting of the New Silk Road Economic Belt 新丝绸之路经济带 and the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road 21世纪海上丝绸之路. The Belt and Road are envisioned as extensive networks of Chinese commerce, investment and infrastructure projects extending along the country’s key strategic trade routes west and south. Xi and his colleagues have committed US$40 billion to a Silk Road Fund and created the multinational US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to finance 1B1R. The overarching aim of these institutions is to align the interests of regional or ‘peripheral countries’ 周边国家 with China’s continued rise.

China wants Australia to be part of the 1B1R. Australia is a regional maritime power that, like China, depends on South China Sea shipping lanes for its commercial lifeblood. In his 17 November ‘important speech’ (中文) to a joint-sitting of the Australian parliament, Xi declared that Oceania was a ‘natural extension’ 自然延伸 of the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road, and he invited Australia to participate in it.

Xi Laughing at Podium.

Xi Jinping in Canberra


China has also enjoined Australia to become a founding member of the AIIB. This is because Australia is the sixth largest APEC economy and a Western liberal democracy. Australia would add both weight and prestige to China’s proposed regional economic architecture. [The use-by date of China’s invitation is late March 2015 — Ed.]

In these efforts, Australia is, nonetheless, not a major focus of Chinese diplomacy when compared to such ‘great powers’ 大国 as the US and Russia, or in relation to ‘neighbouring countries’ 邻国 that share land or maritime borders with the People’s Republic. Nonetheless, for a country that touts itself as ‘punching above its weight’, Australia is of no minor relevance, indeed it may be of increasing importance as a result of Xi’s elevated focus on a ‘peripheral diplomacy’ 周边外交 in which Australia is regarded as part of China’s ‘greater periphery’ 大周边.

The two-and-a-half years of Xi-style strategic diplomacy is beginning to bear fruit. The Australian government is responding positively to his economic incentives. Despite American pressure not to join the AIIB, Australia looks set to do so in the near future (if not as a founding member, then as a willing participant), and following Xi’s November 2014 visit Trade Minister Andrew Robb said: ‘we will be encouraging Japan and the US to follow suit’. An online report by China’s National Development and Reform Commission published on 9 February 2015 states that Australian diplomats in Beijing have even indicated that Australia wishes to ‘thoroughly participate’ in 1B1R.

Much of this new willingness is credited to Xi’s successful visit to Australia. A People’s Daily editorial acclaimed Xi’s Australia trip as ‘opening up a new situation in greater periphery diplomacy’ that ‘pulled it closer’ to China. It was portrayed as an exemplary success: a Xinhua article said the visit ‘received extensive praise from the local media’ and ‘successfully broadcast the inclusive manner of Chinese diplomacy’; another Xinhua commentary hailed Xi for ‘increasing confidence and dispelling doubts’ about China’s rise; and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi 王毅 described it as an ‘interpretation of the Asia-Pacific dream and world dream of common development and prosperity’. [We would note that this is all well and good, and of course in keeping with the auto-laudatory tradition of China’s party-state media, but underlying causes for friction in the relationship remain starkly unaddressed. — Ed.]

This is the overall context for China’s engagement with Australia and the world.

Strengthening the ‘Four Bonds’ of Australia-China Relations

The Xi administration has clearly outlined its approach to improving Australia-China relations — summarised as strengthening the ‘Four Bonds’ 四个纽带 of mutual trust, economic interests, people-to-people exchange and strategic dialogue.

This formulation is unique to China vis-à-vis Australia; it was originally framed ‘to make Australia-China relations become a model for harmonious interaction and win-win cooperation between countries of different social systems, with different histories and cultures, and at different stages of development’. This means that China recognises the importance of long-term strategic diplomacy with Australia in the context of advancing its wider regional and international relations. It may even indicate that it uses the Australia-China relationship as something of a ‘test case’ for other relationships. Indeed, repeated references to Australia-China relations serving as such a ‘model’ 典范/表率 suggest that China’s present engagement with Australia may inform subsequent foreign policy moves regarding other medium-sized Western countries. The crux of China’s strategy here lies in just how powerful its use of economic incentives can be versus the weight of the historic strategic alliance and shared cultural heritage that Australia enjoys with the US. That the Four Bonds go beyond mere commercial exchange, or the more comfortable and unreflective ‘transactional relationship’ that Australia has generally enjoyed with the People’s Republic in recent times, is evidence that Xi recognises the need for broader approaches to win the favour of Western publics and politicians. China’s leaders have perhaps learnt in Australia that public suspicion of the People’s Republic can be very costly to bilateral economic development — Chinalco’s failed investment in Rio Tinto in 2008-2009, for example, is still recalled with considerable rancour.

Xi and Abbott Drinking a Toast.

Xi and Abbott toasting the bilateral relationship at a state dinner, November 2014

The Four Bonds, while not an expression employed by Xi in Australia, is a concept that has informed Xi’s Australia policy at least since the Abbott government came to office in September 2013. When Xi first met Abbott at the Bali APEC summit in early October 2013, he outlined four bonds that should be strengthened so as to improve Australia-China relations. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs used the Four Bonds in comments on China’s goals for Abbott’s visit to Beijing in April 2014. Then, Xi exhorted Australia and China to consolidate these same ‘bonds’ in his signed op-ed (中文) published by the Australian Financial Review on 14 November 2014. The idea of the Four Bonds also runs through the second half of Xi’s speech to the Australian parliament, where he identifies four areas for Australia and China to ‘work together to sustain peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific’.

The Four Bonds are:

Mutual Trust 互信纽带

In his speech to the Australian parliament, Xi stated that ‘China and Australia differ in history, culture, social system and stage of development, so it is natural for us to have disagreements on some issues’. Xi’s solution to this contradiction was to propose strengthening bilateral trust through political dialogue that focuses on common interests such as economic development and avoids areas of contention such as territorial sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas.

The Chinese leadership understands why Australia will remain a US ally, support Japanese military modernisation and also why it reacted adversely to China’s declaration in 2013 of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. But he believes that China’s ‘strategic partnership’ with Australia could induce Australia to prioritise more efficaciously areas of mutual economic benefit and thereby reduce opposition to China’s core interests over the long-term. As Wang Yi has stated ‘China may not be Australia’s closest friend at present, but China is willing to become Australia’s sincerest friend’.[1]

China’s rapid raising of its relationship with Australia to the status of a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, despite the Abbott government’s continuing opposition to China challenging the territorial status quo in its sovereignty disputes, suggests the importance of this arrangement. While Xi may not believe that Australia will abandon its US alliance for increased trade benefits with China, indications are that he still believes that Australia and China can ‘go beyond a commercial partnership to become strategic partners who have a shared vision and pursue common goals’, if Australia concentrates on its ‘long term and larger interests’. The question remains one of how the two countries view and calculate these interests. This is a question not only for Australia’s present incumbents, but for successor governments as well.

Economic Interests 经贸纽带/利益纽带

Mutual economic development is a major aspect of Xi’s foreign policy stance and he states that ‘China and Australia have a lot to offer each other economically, and our development strategies complement each other in many ways’. The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (CHAFTA) is designed to increase this two-way trade. Yet while Australian media coverage emphasised trade concessions in Australia’s favour (despite the fact that the details of the Free Trade Agreement are still murky), when CHAFTA is reconsidered in three years time these concessions could be used as leverage by Chinese negotiators. This is because one of China’s major economic development interests remains unresolved: China wants its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to be able to invest in Australia without interference from politically sensitive government approval processes. Hence Xi used his visit to push for ‘a fairer and more enabling environment’ for bilateral investment.

The importance of economic diplomacy to China’s strategic thinking about Australia and the Asia-Pacific is suggested by the party-state’s willingness to delay investment negotiations and deliver a diplomatic triumph to the Abbott government within its self-imposed twelve-month CHAFTA deadline. Guo Chunmei 郭春梅, the Australia analyst at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations 中国现代国际关系研究院, a high-level Beijing think tank, is quoted in a People’s Daily article as saying the substantive conclusion of CHAFTA negotiations was ‘a big gift from China to Australia’. It is a remark that should be noted and taken seriously by Australia’s political class and media.

People-to-people Exchange 人文纽带

Xi goes on in his speech to parliament to say that ‘if the China-Australia relationship is to flourish, it must be supported by stronger people-to-people ties’ and proposes closer cooperation and exchanges in education, culture, science, tourism and local government. Xi’s endorsement of the Australia-China State/Provincial Leaders Forum, of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Sydney and of the New Colombo Plan can be taken as signs of this desired cooperation. China hopes these exchanges make more Australians (and Chinese) support and benefit from bilateral ties. Xi seems to believe that more interaction can only increase China’s standing with the Australian population and decrease the political currency of ‘anti-China’ rhetoric.

Strategic Dialogue 安全纽带/多边合作纽带/战略沟通

The Fourth Bond, ‘strategic dialogue’, has evolved from ‘strengthening military-to-military exchange’ in October 2013, to ‘strengthening multilateral cooperation in global and regional institutions’ in Xi’s Australian Financial Review op-ed, and than to enhance ‘strategic dialogue’ and be ‘harmonious neighbours’ in Xi’s speech to parliament. In that speech, Xi expressed the wish that Australia play ‘a more constructive role in the region’ by encouraging increased coordination of macroeconomic policies, infrastructure connectivity, fiscal cooperation and trade liberalisation. He saw this constructive role as coming as a result of Australia aiding ‘regional economic integration’.

According to the extensive People’s Daily roundup of Xi’s trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji over 14-23 November 2014, this is also China’s larger motivation behind CHAFTA. CHAFTA, ‘set against the grander background of the entire Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific [FTAAP] … is just one recently finished piece of the jigsaw puzzle’. China hopes to avoid the ‘fragmentation of regional cooperation’ — and thereby the fragmentation of China’s potential regional leadership — between the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, the China-led FTAAP and the ASEAN+6 Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. However, Xi knows the FTAAP will take many years to negotiate. He wants to act quickly within the Party’s conceived ‘period of strategic opportunity’ 战略机遇期, seen as lasting from 2000 to 2020, and to finalise the deal before 2020.

Australia and the ‘Three Unwaverings’

Xi’s speech to the joint-sitting of the Australian parliament also summarised China’s broader approach to regional diplomacy. Yet there was little analysis in the Australian press of the ideological background and policy implications of the rhetorical markers that Xi laid out.

Following the standard bilateral blandishments, Xi discussed three things concerning which China is ‘unwavering’ 不会动摇: ‘peaceful development’, ‘common development’ and ‘promoting cooperation and development in the Asia-Pacific’.[2]

Each of these slogans has a specific meaning:

Peaceful Development 和平发展

According to the former US Navy analyst Timothy Heath, peaceful development ‘centers on shaping a peaceful, favorable international environment which can enable China to maintain its focus on national development’. It resolves the tension between China’s need for stability for the sake of achieving growth and China’s desire to protect its expanding ‘core interests’ 核心利益 in the areas of development, security and territorial sovereignty. The end goal of peaceful development is vaunted as being the creation of an ‘Harmonious World’ 和谐世界, one in which a rejuvenated China inhabits a stable regional order receptive to its power. This would mean a multipolar regional order, with China at least sharing peer status with the US. As part of this evolving power redistribution, China will continue to work for and demand Australian neutrality regarding China’s territorial disputes.

Common Development 共同发展

‘Common development’ references to a notion first outlined in the authoritative Eighteenth Party Congress Report 十八大报告, that the world is a ‘Community of Shared Destiny’ 命运共同体 (the theme of the forthcoming 2014 CIW China Story Yearbook). The central idea behind the Community of Shared Destiny is that countries must ‘give consideration to the reasonable concerns of other countries whilst pursuing national interests’ and to ‘advance the common development of every country whilst pursuing national development’. Based on the promise of enormous trade and investment opportunities with a growing and globalising China, Australia is a part of this community of shared destiny, and China hopes that increased mutual commercial interests will slowly nudge Australia towards accepting a greater political accommodation of China’s rise as being something that is in its national interest.

Promoting Cooperation and Development in the Asia-Pacific 促进亚太合作发展

‘Promoting cooperation and development in the Asia-Pacific’ refers specifically to Xi’s ‘New Asian Security Concept’ 新亚洲安全观. The concept is summarised as ‘[working] with other countries in the region to enlarge the pie of common interest and achieve win-win progress’ and thereby to ‘create a virtuous cycle of development and security’. In this way, China’s economic development and that of its regional partners will be mutually reinforcing, causing their security interests to converge. China is attempting to deepen its connections with Australia in the political and socio-cultural as well as economic spheres. This reflects the principles behind Xi-era peripheral diplomacy, summarised up in the four pseudo-Confucian terms ‘amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness’ 亲、诚、惠、容, which recognises the need to improve among its neighbours popular sentiment towards China while building economic ties with regional countries to make them ‘more friendly, intimate, acknowledging and supportive towards China’.

Conclusion: the Iceberg Beneath the Tip

So what might the overall effect of Xi’s foreign policy be on Australia? The journalist John Garnaut puts it well: ‘There is no single meta-choice that Australia needs to make between American security and Chinese prosperity. Rather, there is an endless array of smaller choices, much closer to home, that Australians have little experience in handling and can find it difficult to even see’.

Any considered reading of official Chinese-language sources clearly shows that Xi’s foreign policy strategy aims to cajole if not induce Australia to decide more and more minor strategic issues in China’s favour. The People’s Republic will be trying to make it in Australia’s economic interest to do so.

This essay makes no judgment as to how Australia should react to Xi’s Australia policy. Rather, Australia must listen more attentively to what China is saying. What the Chinese government says does, after all, communicate much about what it thinks. In determining how to react, Australia needs to go beyond the tip of Xi’s words to consider the unseen iceberg of Chinese foreign policy thinking that lies beneath the surface.



* The author would like to acknowledge the intellectual and editorial contributions to this essay of Ryan Manuel and Geremie R Barmé.

[1] There is a certain resonance, whether intended or not, between Wang’s remark and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s comment in April 2008 to an audience at Peking University: ‘A true friend is one who can be a zhengyou, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship.’ For an analysis of the Rudd speech and a comment on zhengyou 诤友, see Geremie R Barmé, ‘Rudd rewrites the rules of engagement’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 2008, online at: http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/rudd-rewrites-the-rules-of-engagement/2008/04/11/1207856825767.html?page=fullpage

[2] The ‘Three Unwaverings’ was an expression favoured by Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. See Gloria Davies, ‘Fitting Words’, Chapter 7 in Geremie R Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn, eds, China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China, Canberra: Australian Centre on China in the World, 2013, online at: http://www.thechinastory.org/yearbooks/yearbook-2013/chapter-7-fitting-words/