Why China-Australia Relations Are Warming. Sort of.

Since 2017, Australia has played David to China’s Goliath: rejecting Chinese pressure to adopt Huawei technology, calling out Chinese political interference, and demanding an inquiry into Covid-19’s origins, even as Beijing blocked Australian imports ranging from coal to wine.

Now, with Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, landing in Beijing on Saturday for a three-day visit and a meeting with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, reconciliation is advancing — but with limits.

Mr. Albanese’s trip represents a small step back to economic and diplomatic stability after a long march into distrust. China’s coercive tariffs are disappearing. Australia’s rhetoric has softened. Yet anxiety and security concerns persist.

“There will always be that nervous glance backward at this part of the relationship’s history,” said James Curran, a historian at the University of Sydney, referring to the tariffs and years of frozen relations. “It won’t be easily erased because what came with it was a whole other set of assumptions and fears.”

If Australia was and will be a bellwether for relations with China, as many Western powers believe, regular trade and dialogue — rather than the enthusiasm for future opportunities that defined the early years of China’s economic rise — may be as good as it gets. Both sides have been cautious in the run-up to this weekend’s visit, avoiding terms like “reset” in favor of “stabilization,” and pointing to relatively minor concessions that have led them back to diplomacy after years of escalating rancor.

For Australia, the reversal began with a new government. Mr. Albanese was elected in May 2022 and, within weeks, defense ministers from the two countries met on the sidelines of a conference in Singapore. Soon Xiao Qian, China’s ambassador to Australia, had a recalibrated pitch for improving relations.

“China looks at Australia as a friend, as a partner,” he said, “and we do not see, I do not see, any reason that Australia should look at China as an enemy or as an adversary.”

In December, Penny Wong, Australia’s foreign minister, met with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in Beijing. They agreed to resume dialogue on issues like trade, climate change and defense — an area that has become more tense with China’s strong opposition to AUKUS, the 2021 security deal between Australia, the United States and England involving nuclear-powered submarines.

Ms. Wong also raised the cases of a detained Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, and the writer Yang Hengjun.

Asked if relations were warming after a period that included Beijing blocking phone calls between Australian government ministers and their Chinese counterparts, Ms. Wong said: “The ice thaws, but slowly.”

And it has. Australia has withdrawn complaints to the World Trade Organization, as China has gradually agreed to review or remove the tariffs and trade bans that cost several Australian industries billions of dollars. As a result, the products on the way back to China include coal, barley and timber. Wine and lobster exports could resume in a few months.

While Mr. Yang remains in custody on questionable charges, Cheng Lei was released by Chinese authorities and returned to Australia last month.

Australia, in turn, recently announced that — after a lengthy security review — it would not cancel a Chinese company’s 99-year lease of the northern port of Darwin.

Mr. Albanese said that Chinese management of the port, not far from where American troops rotate through the country every year, was not a safety risk, and that the decision would ensure that “Australia remains a competitive destination for foreign investment.”

China welcomed the decision as a sign that economics were once again becoming a more dominant element of the bilateral relationship.

“On the one hand, after coming to power, Australian Prime Minister Albanese recognized the importance of the Chinese market and sought reconciliation with China,” said Peng Qinglong, the director of the Center for Australian Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “On the other hand, the current global economic situation is not optimistic, and this background has prompted the two sides to engage in communication and dialogue.”

But for China, many analysts argue, the reason for welcoming Australia back into the fold goes beyond just business. Since 2018, when Mr. Xi eliminated term limits and made himself leader for life, his approach at home and abroad has rankled many countries that, like Australia, count China as a top trade partner.

The Philippines, after flirting with closer ties to Beijing, has tilted more toward the United States in part because of China’s expansive claims and aggressive advances into disputed waters of the South China Sea. India, after clashes at its border with China in 2020, has also expanded defense ties with Washington, seeing Beijing as more of a threat.

“China’s power projection in the region is raising eyebrows and challenging its own image as a responsible power,” said Courtney J. Fung, an Asia Society Australia scholar-in-residence. She added: “Working to build a more positive relationship with Australia can help China repair its image in the region.”

How much of that reputation can be repaired remains an open question. Chinese officials have made clear they are still unhappy about AUKUS and other groupings, like the Quad, that they see as an American-led effort to encircle and threaten China.

Polls in Australia also show deep skepticism about the Chinese government’s intentions: One recent survey found that 75 percent of Australians see China becoming a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.

Even among those set to benefit from the stabilization in relations, the impact of the past few years seems destined to limit exuberance.

Nikki Palun, an Australian winery owner, used to ship more than two million bottles of wine to China a year, representing 90 percent of her business. But the effect of China’s tariffs was drastic, and will linger.

“I’ve been forced to diversify, and I really like the direction the business is going,” she said. “I will go back to China, of course, but it might represent only 20 or 30 percent of my sales.”

In Washington, as well, the assessment of China’s outreach efforts remains bleak. While there is talk of Mr. Xi meeting with President Biden on the sidelines of a regional economic summit in San Francisco this month, many American officials have lowered their expectations because Mr. Xi and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have cemented their partnership over the war in Ukraine.

In speeches at home, Mr. Xi has repeatedly de-emphasized the economy and prioritized national security, warning that China faces “dangerous storms” ahead around the world.

“China is not switching direction and opening up anytime soon, whether that’s politically, economically or militarily,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Mr. Albanese’s trip to China, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first visit by an Australian prime minister, is fresh off a state visit to the United States.

In Washington, Mr. Biden warned Australia to be careful, to avoid investing too heavily in Chinese promises.

“‘Trust but verify’ is the phrase,” he said.

Given recent history, Mr. Albanese is likely to heed that advice.

Siyi Zhao contributed reporting.

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