Australian officials stayed in “regular contact” with the Chinese embassy in Canberra to “explain our decisions” even when Australian ministers were subjected to a two-year diplomatic freeze, newly released documents show.
The former Morrison government had been “willing to engage with China in dialogue at any time”, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade briefing notes, which also described the relationship as being under “considerable strain”.
Australian government ministers were blocked from meetings or calls with their direct Chinese counterparts for more than two years, although lower-level diplomats and public servants kept in communication.
The high-level freeze finally ended when the new deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, sat down for an hour with China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore earlier this month.
China’s new ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, is expected to outline his views on the next steps in the relationship when he addresses an event in Sydney on Friday afternoon.
Documents obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws provide an insight into the Morrison government’s China strategy in the lead-up to its electoral defeat last month.
They include a question time brief prepared in February for the then foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne. This said Australia was “ready to talk anytime” so long as no preconditions were set.
Dfat prepared Payne and senior officials for the possibility they needed to defend the then Morrison government’s sometimes-heated rhetoric on China.
A briefing pack for a Senate estimates committee hearing held on 17 February included a response if asked: “Shouldn’t the government be doing more and speaking less?”
“The government has committed to standing firm to protect our sovereignty, values and principles,” reads the proposed response.
“Sometimes that will mean speaking out on matters of principle and concern.”
Marles said this month that the Albanese government would continue to stand up for Australia’s interests and values, but with a different “tone”.
He has promised to avoid “the chest-beating that we’ve seen from the former government”, and cited former US president Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy mantra to “speak softly and carry a big stick”.
The FoI documents show that in February, Dfat officials prepared an answer to the potential question: “Do we have a functional China strategy?”
“Yes,” the planned response said.
“It is based on a measured and deliberate approach that prioritises the national interest; a commitment to agreed rules, including trade rules; a willingness to engage with China in dialogue at any time, without preconditions.”
The same document noted that Dfat’s first assistant secretary for the East Asia Division, Elly Lawson, “was in regular contact with” Wang Xining, who was acting as ambassador before Xiao’s arrival in Australia in January.
“We continue to explain our decisions to Chinese counterparts and take a strategic approach to managing issues in the relationship with China,” the document said.
But it appears not all ministers were singing from the same song sheet.
Dfat’s question time brief for Payne, also dated 17 February, included a positive line about the arrival of Xiao to Australia.
“The Australian government welcomes China’s new ambassador-designate and we also welcome his statement that he will work to increase engagement and communication,” the Dfat brief to Payne said.
Three weeks earlier, the then-defence minister Peter Dutton sounded less optimistic.
Dutton said the Australian government welcomed the new ambassador and still wanted “a good, strong, friendly relationship with China”. But Dutton immediately pivoted to say that China was “at loggerheads” with Australia and “many, many other countries”.
“It’s a belligerent approach, and it’s unacceptable, and I hope the new the ambassador is sincere in what he says, but we need to talk about human rights issues,” Dutton said on 27 January.
Australian officials also provided Payne with a summary of the “14 grievances” outlined by the Chinese embassy in late 2020, including Australia’s “interference” on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan issues and negative Australian media reporting about China.
A question time brief for Payne, dated 19 November 2021, said Australia and China could discuss differences over policy “but we won’t reverse decisions taken in the national interest in exchange for dialogue and cooperation”.
The brief also denied that the Aukus deal – including plans for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines – signalled any change in strategy towards China.
Payne last met China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, on 24 September 2019 in New York, and the pair last spoke by phone on 29 January 2020, the documents confirm.
Scott Morrison last met China’s premier, Li Keqiang, in November 2019 in Bangkok and president Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Osaka in June 2019.
The already frosty relationship worsened in 2020, in part because the Chinese government objected to the Australian government’s early advocacy for an independent international investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
Beijing then introduced steep tariffs, unofficial bans and higher screening requirements on Australian exports such as barley, beef, wine and coal, prompting Australia to denounce “economic coercion”.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said on Thursday it was good the defence ministers had met, but repeated his call for Beijing to remove the trade sanctions, saying that would “go a long way towards restoring improved relations”.
Albanese told the ABC’s 7.30 program he looked forward to “further dialogue between ministers of our respective governments”, while predicting that it would remain “a problematic relationship”.
Xiao met on Tuesday with the Australian Labor party’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, who is understood to have consulted with the Albanese government about it ahead of time.
Erickson is believed to have informed the ambassador during the meeting that Australia’s positions on the 5G rollout, human rights, foreign interference, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea remain the same as the previous government’s positions.