Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived early for a meeting with his Australian counterpart Penny Wong in Bali two months ago.
In Chinese culture, the act of waiting demonstrates authenticity and kindness.
Given recent history, arriving early is not what Australia might have expected from China’s top diplomat.
Canberra was left waiting for nearly two years during a diplomatic freeze, hoping officials in Beijing would answer the phone.
Wang’s meeting with Wong during the G20 was the first ministerial-level meeting between the two countries since 2019.
They apparently had a lot to talk about. The meeting exceeded the scheduled duration and was Wang’s longest official meeting on the sidelines of the event.
Now, 77 days later, Wang and Wong have met again, this time on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
It is a moment that could be a critical turning point in China’s relations with Australia.
After the meeting, Wong did not want to present the resumption of talks as a panacea that would magically remove deep-seated tensions in the relationship.
“It was another constructive meeting,” he said.
“I think it is a long road in which many steps will have to be taken by both parties for a more stable relationship.”
Still, from zero ministerial dialogue to two meetings in almost as many months, it appears that small steps are being taken to mend the relationship.
But any optimism about rapprochement must be tempered: on a practical level, nothing has changed.
Two Australians, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, are still detained in China and trade sanctions remain in place.
Beijing’s military ambitions for Taiwan and its human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims are also sources of tension for Australia and the region.
But as an auspicious event looms on the calendar, the time has come to reboot.
Could a meeting between Xi and the Albanians be planned?
The 50th anniversary of Australia-China relations is on December 21.
There are rumors that the Chinese side sees the date as an opportunity to demonstrate warmer ties.
Especially if there is a meeting, official or not, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Antony Albanese in the intervening months.
An opportunity looms at the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali in November, which Xi and Albanese are expected to attend.
It would be the first high-level engagement between China and Australia in about five years.
Beijing is showing a change of tone, perhaps indicating a different attitude towards the Labor government.
The fact that the Labor Party is in power is significant for Beijing: it was under the Labor Party in the early 1970s that Canberra switched from Taipei to recognize Beijing as the official representative of China, a move that also made the United States. Joined.
Any decision Beijing and Canberra make between now and then could drastically change the dynamic.
The next three months will be a great test for both of them.
From wolf-warriors to subtle messages
Wang can be seen as a mouthpiece for Xi: the way he interacted with Wong would have been under strict instructions to reflect the president’s will.
Once China’s ambassador to Japan, Wang was given the delicate task of mending the rifts 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 global stage, Wang is now seen as one of the key proponents of Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy.
That makes meetings with Wong all the more meaningful.
But Xi’s messenger to Australia, the newly appointed ambassador Xiao Qian, has departed from the wolf-warrior trope.
Xiao has presented himself as a facilitator of closer ties between the two countries.
Although he has weighed in on the Taiwan issue, which could have serious security ramifications for Australia, he has also been sending a subtle but significant message to Australians.
“When there is really a desire and will from both sides, I would love to see a high-level meeting between our two countries,” Xiao told ABC’s 7.30 earlier this month.
That mention of a high-level meeting possibly indicates a face-to-face between Xi and Albanese.
“We have to make sure that it will be constructive rather than destructive… what I would like to see is that we have a favorable atmosphere to create,” Xiao said.
“No one should set a precondition for the other side.”
This is a significant change in rhetoric: in June, Xiao suggested the previous government took “the first opportunity” to damage relations by banning Chinese tech company Huawei from Australia’s 5G network.
The suggestion that there should be “no preconditions” is a marked departure from Beijing’s earlier message, which insisted that improvement in the relationship must be on China’s terms and that the blame lay squarely at Australia’s feet for the worsening of ties.
Create a “favorable environment”
Xiao knows what a “favorable atmosphere” is like.
In his final public appearance at Australia’s China Business Council networking day last week, he told Australian businesses they had “an important role to play”.
The former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia is no stranger to resetting cooperation frameworks and tried 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 China-Indonesia relations has undoubtedly been significant.
When he took up his new post in Canberra, Xiao did not emulate Beijing’s wolf-warrior style.
Instead, the ambassador has been on something of a media blitz: speaking at the National Press Club, visiting ABC headquarters in June, and participating in a robust live interview on ABC’s 7:30 earlier this month.
Beijing state media has continued its criticism of Australia’s nuclear submarine deal under AUKUS.
But Xiao has been highlighting the positives.
“Now we have a good momentum,” he said.
“The Chinese side is ready to work together with the Australian side… so that we can put our relationship back on the right track at an early date.”