Gough and Albanese 50 years apart

Gough and Albanese 50 years apart

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The sight of an Australian prime minister in the Temple of Heaven, where Chinese emperors once wished for good harvests, signals the great symbolic success for Anthony Albanese in his visit to China this week.

The temple is freighted with history for China and Australia because it was one of the first stops for Gough Whitlam on his official visit to Beijing in 1973, months after his formal recognition of Communist China.

Gough Whitlam visiting the Echo Wall at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven on his first prime ministerial visit in 1973.Credit: National Archives of Australia

Albanese visited the temple on Monday, when it is usually closed to visitors, as an icy wind blew across the grounds, against the perfect backdrop of a blue sky with no trace of smog.

In granting Albanese a private tour, the Chinese leaders gave the prime minister a magnificent setting to convey his achievement in mending relations after years of friction.

But the grand welcome for Albanese comes with a catch. Chinese President Xi Jinping is not greeting Albanese in Beijing to mark the past 50 years but to realign the relationship for the decades ahead.

Xi wants Albanese to accept China’s status as the dominant economic power in Asia by supporting its membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact designed to tighten ties between democracies and shut China out.

China’s membership of this group is unthinkable for Japan, one of the founders, and seems unlikely when the application would need unanimous support from members ranging from Canada to Singapore.

Even so, the Chinese request forces Albanese to make a hard decision. Where does Australia stand? Does it back Japan in snubbing China? Or does it hold out hope for China that it might one day gain formal recognition in a bloc meant to champion free trade?

The decision Whitlam made was to recognise a rising China – formally, permanently, and despite being attacked for it by Liberals at home.

Albanese is nowhere near making such a fateful decision in his China visit. The prime minister, toasted only recently at a state dinner in Washington DC, backs Australia’s alliance with the United States and the AUKUS pact on nuclear-powered submarines, fiercely opposed by China.

US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a Quad meeting in Japan in May.Credit: AP

He also backs the Quad security dialogue with Japan, India and the United States, which China sees as a threatening encirclement by its rivals. Logic says that after the Chinese sanctions on about $20 billion in Australian exports over the past few years, he would dismiss the trade request out of hand.

Yet Albanese is evasive on the pact. Asked five times on Sunday to set out his position, he did not dismiss China’s ambitions. He did not support them, either. So, he hedged.

This means Albanese is caught in the same dilemma as every other prime minister in recent years in choosing between Australia’s strategic allies and its biggest trading partner.

China has become increasingly blunt in its call on Australia and others to let it join, but this is not the only test of the prime minister’s visit.

On the AUKUS alliance, there is no chance that Xi can bend Australian policy to his will no matter how generous the welcome for his Australian visitor.

On the South China Sea, the Australian government insists on freedom of navigation despite China’s militarisation of disputed reefs.

And on the Chinese trade sanctions on exports ranging from barley to wine and lobsters, the Albanese government has waited for China to give ground without offering concessions in return.

So far, at least, the Australian visit has not come at an obvious cost. At the same time, the Chinese welcome is generous but not effusive. The China Daily made no mention of Albanese on Monday, giving front-page prominence to a group of visitors from Cuba instead.

That puts the Albanese visit in perspective. This is an immensely positive visit, but it is right to see it as a “stabilisation” in the relationship – certainly not a great leap forward.

And it comes with a clear request from Xi – for the next step in Australian recognition of China’s rising power. Albanese is yet to decide his answer.

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