There was palpable relief in Canberra after the recent official visit to Beijing of Australia’ foreign minister, Marise Payne, and her meeting with her Chinese counterpart. And why was this so important? It was because China had put Australia in diplomatic freeze for over two years, upset at Canberra’s criticism of China; particularly implying that it was interfering in Australia’s affairs. China took offence at Canberra’s foreign interference legislation to curb such activity, though China was not specifically mentioned. It came in the context of a number of media stories, some apparently based on leaked intelligence information that showed concern about such foreign interference. China reacted by putting a diplomatic freeze on ministerial visits between the two countries and there was concern in Australia that Beijing might follow it up with some kind of retaliation in trading relationship. Nothing of the sort happened, though there was some slowdown of selective exports, like some Australian wines, to create disquiet here. What might have caused China’s to lift the freeze? Apparently, Beijing has decided that its approach of isolating Australia left it with not much flexibility. Diplomatic flexibility might be a better approach, as in China’ relations with Japan. Beijing has some serious issues with Tokyo, for instance, over sovereignty of Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and it had brought the two countries to, what might have been, a serious naval clash. But, while still professing its claim to sovereignty of this group of islands, China is not making it a make or break issue. Its political and economic relationship with Japan is continuing apace. In this Trump-era of international diplomacy, there is space for selective cooperation even between China and the US allies, like Japan and Australia, for instance, over trade relations where the US is putting up tariffs and creating a restrictive global trade regime. While China is its particular target, Washington’s allies like Germany, Canada and others are also affected. Australia has escaped so far but, as a country depending for its economic prosperity on open international trade, Australia and China have a common interest in a relatively open global trade regime. Australia’ trade minister, while attending China International Expo in Shanghai recently, made statements to the Chinese media in support of China’ economic growth and against trade protectionism. A free trade agreement between China and Australia has lowered or axed many tariffs. In this Trump-era of international diplomacy, there is space for selective cooperation even between China and the US allies, like Japan and Australia, for instance, over trade relations where the US is putting up tariffs and creating a restrictive global trade regime But, as Australia’s foreign minister reportedly said that because of the different cultural and political backgrounds of the two countries, “There are from time to time going to be issues that rub in relationships. But… effective and strong communication between ourselves, between our governments — from a premise of mutual respect, is a very good place to start.” In other words, it is hopefully a propitious start. But it is not going to be that easy. First, Australia’s security alliance with the United States is an impediment in a broader sense, as strategic competition between China and the United States is sharpening, abetted by a virtual trade war between them. Australia is more inclined to favour open trade, with trade disputes resolved by the mechanism of the World Trade Organization. And China would like to have Australia on its side. However, the overarching strategic relationship between Australia and the United States is long standing, with Canberra hoping that it will be able to balance its ties with China, which is its largest trading partner. But Canberra is concerned about China’s growing role in the region, like in the South China Sea, which, it considers destabilizing. By the same token, Australia is very cautious about some Chinese companies, like the internet giant, Huawei, seeking to invest in Australia in a big way. Chinese companies are also seeking to invest in critical infrastructure projects like electricity grids and gas pipelines. Using national security considerations as the litmus test, Canberra has decided against allowing Chinese companies to invest in areas regarded as national security sensitive. Overlaying all this is China’s growing role in small South Pacific countries, like Papua New Guinea (PNG), which has just hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC), where China’s President Xi Jinping arrived on a state visit before the formal APEC meeting amid much fanfare. But the APEC summit ended in disarray with Chinese and US sides unable to agree on a joint communiqué, the first time it has happened following an APEC summit. Xi’s visit was the first by a Chinese president and there was a great display of friendship between the host PNG and the visiting Chinese side, with President Xi cutting the ribbon for a multimillion Chinese-aided highway. China has built a number of infrastructure projects in this part of the world, and they are prominently visible. It is worth noticing that PNG is a former Australian colony, granted independence in 1975, and Australia is by far the largest aid donor in this region. And suddenly, it finds China on its doorstep, bringing the perceived China threat much closer. Australia has responded with a $3 billion infrastructure fund for the region. Australia, US and PNG, are planning to redevelop a naval base on PNG’s Manus Island. It looks like it might develop into a Pacific version of the Great Game in Central Asia in the nineteenth century between the Britain and Russia. In that case, the recent thaw between Australia and China might just be a blip in the larger geopolitics of the region. The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia Published in Daily Times, November 23rd 2018.