Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived early two months ago to meet his Australian counterpart Penny Wong in Bali.
In Chinese culture, waiting shows sincerity and kindness.
Given recent history, showing up early is not what Australia expected from China’s top diplomat.
Canberra had to wait nearly two years during a diplomatic freeze, hoping Beijing officials would pick up the phone.
Wang’s meeting with Wong at the G20 was the first ministerial-level meeting between the two countries since 2019.
Apparently they had a lot to discuss. The meeting exceeded the planned length and was Wang’s longest official meeting on the sidelines of the event.
Today, 77 days later, Wang and Wong met again, this time on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
It is a moment that could be a crucial turning point in China’s relations with Australia.
After the meeting, Wong didn’t want to present the resumption of talks as a panacea that would magically remove the tensions that were deeply entrenched in the relationship.
“It was another constructive meeting,” she said.
“I think it’s a long road in which both parties will have to take many steps towards a more stable relationship.”
Still, small steps seem to be being taken to restore the relationship, from zero ministerial dialogue to two meetings in nearly as many months.
But any optimism for rapprochement must be tempered – on a practical level nothing has changed.
Two Australians, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, are still trapped in China and trade sanctions are still in place.
Beijing’s military ambitions for Taiwan and human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims are also sources of tension for Australia and the region.
But now that a promising event is on the calendar, the time has come for a reset.
Could a Xi-Albanian encounter be at stake?
The 50th anniversary of Australia-China relations is on December 21.
The date is rumored to be seen by the Chinese side as an opportunity to showcase warmer tires.
Especially if there is a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Antony Albanian in the intervening months.
An opportunity presents itself at the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali in November, which is expected to attend both Xi and Albanian.
It would be the first top-level collaboration between China and Australia in about five years.
Beijing is showing a shift in tone, perhaps indicating a different attitude towards the Labor government.
The fact that the Labor Party is in power is important to Beijing – it was under Labor in the early 1970s that Canberra switched from Taipei to recognize Beijing as China’s official representative, a move also supported by the United States was done.
Any decisions Beijing and Canberra make between now and then could drastically change the dynamic.
The next three months will be a big test for both of them.
From wolf warriors to subtle messages
Wang can be seen as a mouthpiece for Xi – the way he dealt with Wong is said to have been under strict instruction to reflect the will of the president.
Once China’s ambassador to Japan, Wang was given the delicate mission of mending the cracks between Beijing and Tokyo.
His diplomatic style has changed since he was appointed China’s foreign minister in 2013.
As Xi’s messenger on the world stage, Wang is now seen as one of the main proponents of Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy.
That makes the encounters with Wong all the more important.
But Xi’s messenger in Australia – newly-placed ambassador Xiao Qian – has departed from the wolf-warrior trope.
Xiao has set himself up as a facilitator of closer ties between the two countries.
While he has addressed the issue of Taiwan – which could have serious implications for Australia’s security – he has also sent Australians a subtle but important message.
“If there really is a desire and will on both sides, I would like to see a top-level meeting between our two countries,” Xiao told ABC’s 7.30 program earlier this month.
That mention of a top-level meeting may indicate a one-on-one between Xi and Albanian.
“We need to make sure it becomes a constructive one rather than a destructive one… what I’d like to see is create a favorable atmosphere,” Xiao said.
“No one should make a condition on the other side.”
This is a major shift in rhetoric — in June, Xiao suggested the previous government took the “first chance” to damage relations by barring Chinese tech company Huawei from Australia’s 5G network.
The suggestion that there should be “no condition” is a clear departure from Beijing’s earlier messages, which emphasized that improving the relationship should be on China’s terms and blamed Australia for the deteriorating ties.
Creating a ‘favourable atmosphere’
Xiao knows what a “favourable atmosphere” looks like.
In his last public appearance at the Australia China Business Council networking day last week, he told Australian companies they had “an important role to play”.
The former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia is no stranger to restoring cooperation frameworks, trying to do so during a low point in Beijing’s relations with Jakarta in 2017.
For him, the key to these frameworks is business – from infrastructure to maritime affairs, to COVID-19 vaccines, his role in improving relations between China and Indonesia has undoubtedly been important.
When he took on his new role in Canberra, Xiao didn’t follow Beijing’s wolf warrior style.
Instead, the ambassador has had some sort of media blitz — speaking at the National Press Club, visiting ABC’s headquarters in June, and participating in a robust live interview on ABC’s 7:30 a.m. earlier this month.
Beijing’s state media has continued to criticize Australia’s nuclear submarine deal under AUKUS.
But Xiao has emphasized the positives.
“Now we have good momentum,” he said.
“The Chinese side is ready to work with the Australian side… so that we can indeed get our relationship back on track at an early stage.”