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'Worst moment': Australia’s first ambassador to China shares grave assessment of current relations

A 1999 image of Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO singing China's President Jiang Zemin in Sydney. Source: Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO. Source: Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO

Australia’s first ambassador to the People's Republic of China believes the lack of communication between Canberra and Beijing is “quite extraordinary” amid a political stoush that appears to be escalating.

Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO tells SBS Mandarin he fears relations between Australia and China have “come to a halt”, despite the need for dialogue as tensions continue to rise between the countries. 

The comments come following a November 4 report by The Global Times – a Chinese state-controlled publication - which appears to confirm speculation that China is looking to "halt" some six billion dollars-worth of Australian exports across seven sectors.

The move, which was slated to begin on Friday but hasn't been officially confirmed by the China Ministry of Commerce, would affect the exports of Australian wine, copper, barley, coal sugar, timber and lobster.

Following the report, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said China's trade strikes were a deep concern and again called on Beijing to observe international trade rules.

"They're certainly the principles to which we would adhere and we expect our Chinese partners to do the same," she told the ABC on November 5.

As pundits weigh up the impacts of the potential move, Dr FitzGerald believes relations are at the “worst moment since 1972” when Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam normalised ties between the countries.

Dr FitzGerald, who speaks fluent Mandarin, served as a China specialist within the Department of Foreign Affairs, before becoming Whitlam's China adviser, and later, Australia's first ambassador to the People's Republic of China in 1973, a post he held for three years. 

Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO
Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO.
Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO

He recalls that the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries was “fraught with difficulties”.  

“Before 1972 (and from the PRC founding in 1949), we didn't have any official relations at all. Things were pretty bad,” he said. 

“But from the end of 1972 onwards, once we had diplomatic relations, every step was a step forward in trying to broaden and deepen the relationship. 

“It's been a record of progress. But now, this has more or less come to a halt.” 

Tensions began simmering in April when China expressed anger over Australia's call for an independent inquiry into the source of the coronavirus.  

An image from 1968 of Dr Stephen FitzGerald in China during the CUltural Revolution.
An image from 1968 of Dr Stephen FitzGerald in China during the CUltural Revolution.
Stephen FitzGerald

Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye subsequently called on Chinese consumers to boycott Australian beef and wine, and to avoid travel to Australia for Chinese students. 

Speculation over fresh tariffs comes after China’s move on May 19 to imposed a combined 80.5 per cent tariff on Australian barley, comprised of a 73.6 per cent anti-dumping duty and a 6.9 per cent countervailing duty

Dr FitzGerald believes that a stumbling block in current relations stems from the lack of direct communication between ministers of the two countries, which he calls “quite extraordinary” considering the tensions.

1973 05 Chinese PM Zhou Enlai & Ambassador Stephen FitzGerald, Beijing
An image from 1973 of Chinese PM Zhou Enlai and Ambassador Stephen FitzGerald in Beijing.
Dr Stephen FitzGerald AO

In terms of the deterioration of relations, he said “there are factors on both sides”, noting that there was an “inability on the part of the Australian side to cope with the rise of China”. 

“On the Australian side, I think if I were to sum it up, it's basically a combination of people in the decision making and policymaking areas in Canberra, who find it difficult to cope with the emergence of China as a great power and dominant in our region.”   

Dr FitzGerald said during his Beijing posting, there were Chinese government officials who frequently responded to cooperation requests from Western countries including Australia, despite the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) happening at the time, which was a period of political and social chaos caused by then-President Mao Zedong’s bid to use the Chinese masses to reassert his control over the ruling Communist Party.

But he notes that things have changed since that time. 

“You have the government of Xi Jinping, whose assertive stance in foreign policy has intensified over the last few years, and not so much initially after he first came to power, but it's been accelerating. 

“So that's a factor on the Chinese side.”  

On November 4, while responding to news that a request was made by China's Alcoholic Drinks Association to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to apply retrospective tariffs on Australian wine, Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham called on China to provide “greater clarity so that our businesses can plan with confidence and Chinese importers can also plan with confidence."

Mr Birmingham, who has affirmed that he has not spoken with his Chinese counterpart in months, called for the Chinese government to speak more directly with the Australian government. 

"Our door remains open to that dialogue, the ball is in their court,” he said.  

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.

Following Joe Biden's election win and the ongoing US-China trade war, Dr FitzGerald believes Australia "has to be self-reliant".  

“We have to be sceptical about China. We have to be sceptical about the United States. We cannot just blindly believe in one or the other. These are huge powers with enormous military and economic power.”  

He believes that Australia has been “too closely engaged” with the US while “not engaged” enough with China.  

“It doesn't mean you have to love either of these two countries. But working with both is really important for our future.”

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