When Anthony Albanese walked into his meeting with Xi Jinping on Tuesday, he cannot have wanted to achieve very much. Quite rightly, he didn't try to.
Even if he had wanted and then achieved a great advance in relations between Australia and China, it wouldn't have lasted, because Beijing's behaviour would soon have turned things sour again.
In practical terms, the meeting, the first between the two countries' heads of government in six years, really wasn't such a big deal.
It has been hyped a lot, called a breakthrough. But what, in practical terms, are we supposed to have broken through to?
Achieving "improved relations" isn't a sufficient answer. Improved relations for what purpose?
Better trade access? Umm, no thanks. The Prime Minister reported that in his meeting with Xi he had raised the issue of China blocking imports from Australia. But he surely mentioned it just because he would have seemed weak if he hadn't.
We know that the government is actually uninterested in our trade with China returning to the strength it had before the Chinese Communist Party chucked a wobbly in 2020 over Scott Morrison's call for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.
"I don't think we ever want to get into a situation where we again are so reliant on China," Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell said last month. Too right.
Some parts of the Australian business community, resolutely ignoring the worsening trend in China's international relations, may be champing at the bit to get back into the country. Let them take their own risks of being shut out again and doing their dough. The government is surely not trying to open the way for them.
If a better relationship with Beijing is not supposed to deliver trade benefits, could we expect it instead to influence China's military behaviour? Hardly. Maybe the US has some chance of persuading Xi to rein in his aggressive armed forces in in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, but Australia, however sweetly it gets on with Beijing, cannot. We're too small.
Apart from that, don't get too excited about the improvement in relations. It will mainly help both sides in a variety of smaller matters that diplomats attend to, things that, admittedly, do have some importance.
For example, if there's some honest misunderstanding about our exports not meeting Chinese requirements, our diplomats trying to sort it out will need officials in Beijing to answer the phone. The same goes for when Australians in China get into some kind of strife and need help from the embassy.
Let's hope that Albanese's meeting will at least get us that far.
It would be nice to think that a better relationship with China would give us a higher chance of persuading it to act faster on greenhouse emissions, but, again, we're too small to do that. Maybe the US and the bigger European countries can have some influence in that regard. Maybe.
Commendably, the Prime Minister hardly went out of his way to achieve a better result. He pretty well ensured he wouldn't when he not only raised the issue of China's human rights abuses and threats to Taiwan but also told reporters after the meeting that he had done so.
If he had followed the supine approach championed by New Zealand, he would have not mentioned them at all or at least not have discomforted Xi by letting the world know that he had.
We can't get a lasting happy relationship with China, anyway. Unless it changes its behaviour, which no one expects it to do, it will keep getting into stoushes with Australia and indeed just about all of the democracies.
It is, after all, a country that already uses force short of war to achieve its aims of territorial expansion and threatens to go a lot further if necessary. Foreign resistance to that, and just about anything that China does, pretty reliably results in anger from Beijing.
For example, Canada has discovered that, as part of the CCP's ceaseless quest for control, China tried in 2019 to get at least 11 of its preferred candidates into Parliament in Ottawa. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confronted Xi about it, and his government seems to have told the press that he did so. There's no reason why it shouldn't, but Xi isn't happy.
Hope for fixing the army
Our government is making noises suggesting it will restructure the army, which is presently almost useless for the air-sea war in the western Pacific that we must worry about.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said this week our forces needed "enhanced strike capability - including over longer distances." There would have to be "difficult decisions and trade-offs", he said, meaning something else would have to go.
In an earlier interview with the Australian, Albanese almost mocked the army's preferred mode of operation, saying we hardly need to be equipped for a land war in central Queensland.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.