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Diplomatic Reengagement With China a Balancing Act for Western Countries

By WIlliam Yang

September 11, 2023

FILE - A Chinese honor guard unfurls the Chinese national flag in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2022. Several Western democracies are working to restart diplomatic engagement with China, while also defending their own countries' interests.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Several Western democracies, including the U.S., U.K., and Australia, have tried to restart diplomatic engagement with China in recent months, sending cabinet members to Beijing for talks with Chinese counterparts while upholding tough stances on areas where disagreements with China remain strong.

Analysts say these attempts are necessary to stop the downward spiral in these countries' bilateral relations with China. However, they think it's difficult to achieve any diplomatic breakthrough through these efforts.

"In principle, the efforts to [restart engagement with China] is sensible because some level of communication can avoid unintended misunderstanding and miscalculation," Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), told VOA in a phone interview.

In his view, the larger question for Western democracies is how to balance the efforts to restart engagement with China against the defense of their own interests. "These countries won't return to the engagement phase that they had decades before. There is communication and contact because it's necessary, but there is also a lot more wariness now," Chong said.

Australia's recalibration with China

Australia is one of the countries that has resumed bilateral engagement with China. In July, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong met with the top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi and the two countries held their first high-level dialogue September 7 in Beijing, addressing topics such as trade, people-to-people links, and security.

FILE - Foreign ministers, including Australian Penny Wong, and China's top diplomat Wang Yi attend the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 14, 2023.

These efforts have resulted in the lifting of Chinese tariffs on some Australian commodities including coal and barley, and the Australian government expressed optimism about the two sides making more progress in improving the overall trade ties.

"The progress we have made in resuming unimpeded trade is good for both countries and we want to see that progress continue," Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said after he met with Chinese Premier Li Qiangin Indonesia on September 7.

Bilateral diplomatic ties deteriorated after Beijing imposed tariffs on a dozen Australian products as a response to Canberra's call for an investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To further stabilize bilateral ties, Albanese confirmed that he would be visiting China later this year. He emphasized that while views between the two countries won't always be aligned, Canberra and Beijing recognize that "dialogue is absolutely critical."

While some praised Albanese's decision to visit Beijing, former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cautioned against a "concessional approach" toward restoring ties with China, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Experts say Australia's recent efforts are part of a cautious reengagement where Beijing and Canberra work toward a "gradual increase in contact." It aims at letting both countries look at areas where they agree while continuing to have open channels to address their disagreements.

"Australia wants to have a functioning, stable diplomatic relationship with China that doesn't get derailed by differences," Ryan Neelam, director of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program at Lowy Institute, told VOA in a phone interview. "The Australian government frequently says it seeks to cooperate wherever it can, disagrees where it must, and manages its differences [with China] wisely."

Despite efforts to stabilize relations with China, Albanese said he raised human rights cases, including those of two detained Australian citizens, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, during his conversation with Li, emphasizing that he said Australians want to see Cheng reunited with her children.

However, other analysts say there are signs that the Albanese government is trying to avoid displeasing Beijing by holding back on imposing sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

"In recent months, Canberra has imposed sanctions on Syrian, Iranian, and Russian officials but has not done the same thing with Chinese officials," Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at Australian National University, told VOA in a phone interview.

Australian citizens largely support Albanese's efforts to restart engagement with China, with some saying it's essential for Canberra to have open communication with both "friends and enemies."

"It's important that the government has those lines of engagement and interaction and I think mistakes get made when parties aren't talking," Matt, a 41-year-old hostel manager in Melbourne, told VOA in an audio message.

Others say resuming diplomatic interaction is essential to resolve tough consular cases. "Without a better relationship with China, there will probably be little movement in the case of the detained Australians," Tristan Upton, a 53-year-old engineer in Melbourne, told VOA in a written response.

Britain's China policy

Britain has also restarted diplomatic engagement with China in recent weeks. British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visited China late last month, which is the first such trip by a British Foreign Secretary in nearly five years.

FILE - British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, left, and Chinese Vice President Han Zheng shake hands before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Aug. 30, 2023.

Despite criticism from some British MPs, Cleverly said London would pursue a pragmatic relationship with China while remaining "clear-eyed" about disagreements, adding that it would be a mistake to isolate Beijing.

"The UK was prompted to [restart diplomatic engagement with China] by the Americans, the Australians, and the Europeans who have all done high-level visits and improved relations with China," Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist at the University of Nottingham, told VOA in a written response.

Despite the diplomatic outreach to China, Sullivan thinks these efforts may only signal London's desire to stop the negative spiral. And with the U.K. struggling to cope with a wide range of domestic challenges, including the quick turnovers of prime ministers over the last few years, some experts think London has failed to put forward a set of coherent policies toward China.

Observers think the arrest of a parliamentary researcher suspected of spying for China could further increase the pressure on the British government regarding how it handles its relationship with Beijing. Under these circumstances, Sullivan thinks the U.K. should be more consistent with its foreign policy and try to "communicate its position better."


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