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Sieren's China: Making the best of confusion

As US-Australian relations deteriorate, China's foreign minister is reassuring Canberra that Beijing is a reliable partner, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Every student of politics knows that the timing of a political visit is as important as its reason and should be well chosen. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi could not have chosen a better time to visit Australia and New Zealand, even though in actual fact this was 50 percent coincidental. The visit is important for two reasons:  it is the first by the foreign minister since the beginning of the Chinese New Year, and secondly, China is marking 45 years of diplomatic relations with Australia this year, as it is with Germany.

But what is much more telling is that the visit comes as Australia's relationship with the US is rapidly deteriorating, after Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), had an unfortunate phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and slammed President Barack Obama's "dumb" refugee deal with Australia in a tweet.

Beijing is expanding its influence

Beijing is finding it hard to keep up as erstwhile solid allies of the US come into its sphere of influence. China is thus working hard to underline its bonds with Germany and Australia. Wang Yi flew to Canberra on Tuesday to co-host the fourth round of diplomatic and strategic dialogue between China and Australia. In his talks with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, he performed in a diametrically opposite manner to Trump - he was level-headed, reserved and authoritative. To be honest, it is not difficult to appear more reasonable than Trump.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China (Frank Sieren)

DW columnist Frank Sieren

Wang put down what Trump had said about China so far to campaign rhetoric, saying that Beijing was not interested in this but in what is actually happening now. He said Beijing would give the White House a second chance. The last phone call between the US president and China took place months ago. Beijing is not waiting idly for the next one, but using the time to build up other relationships.

Australia in a difficult position

In recent decades, Australia was a close ally of the US, especially with regards to military cooperation - a guarantor of US interests in Asia so to speak. At the same time, it became one of China's most important trade partners. So Canberra is caught between its geo-strategic and its economic interests. The TTP, which looks close to collapse because the US would have brought along 60 percent of trade volume, was an attempt to balance out the interests and to become less dependent on Beijing.

There was speculation ahead of Wang's visit that China might step in to replace the US, but Wang denied this later. At the same time, he said that China would continue to advocate for an open, global economy.

Nonetheless, no concrete deals were signed to deepen Sino-Australian cooperation. Australia is still under shock and China has time.  Later this month, ministers will meet in Beijing for another round of economic dialogue. Chinese Prime Minister Li Kequiang is due to visit Australia in March. Little strokes fell big oaks!

 

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years.

 

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