Monday’s free trade agreement between Australia and China — and the latter’s overtures of friendship — was greeted with open arms, open wallets and an opening salvo of enthusiastic headlines — the Herald Sun, of course, tastefully choosing to avoid anything resembling an ethnic stereotype.

“We have every reason to go beyond a commercial partnership, to become strategic partners, who have shared vision and pursue common goals,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping in a post-G20 speech. “Australia is an influential country, and we welcome Australia to play a more constructive role in the region.”

Those sweet nothings are all very well, but the accompanying bouquet of economic benefits is what truly set Australian hearts aflutter. Eventually, 95% of Australia’s exports will be allowed tariff-free entry to China’s $10 trillion economy, with a similar removal of tariffs for Chinese products, such as cars and computers, sold in Australia.

For Prime Minister Tony Abbott, coming off a performance at the G20 that could be most generously described as blinkered, the FTA was a huge coup. This is Abbott’s “open for business” Australia, rhetoric at last becoming opportunity. But Monday’s events were also a triumph for Xi, the latest in a series of soft-power gambits matched by real economic muscle. Xi told Australian Parliament in the same speech:

“We Chinese are striving to achieve the Chinese dream, which is the great renewal of the Chinese nation. The Chinese dream is about enhancing the strength and the prosperity of the nation, and the wellbeing of the Chinese people. China remains unshakable in its resolve to pursue peaceful development. We Chinese cherish peace, and the Chinese nation has always been a peace-loving one.”

Xi’s overseas visits in 2014 have followed a certain formula. Once the declarations of friendship are complete, the “Chinese dream” is trotted out — and then come the goodies. This riff on the American dream is no coincidence; it’s a way to position China as a big, fluffy, friendly alternative to the United States. As a counterpoint to the US’s uncomfortable-sounding “Pivot to Asia”, it’s certainly effective.

This March, Xi made his first official trip to western Europe since ascending to the presidency a year earlier. His speech in Paris allows for a swift and elegant summary of the narrative being peddled:

“Napoleon said that China is a sleeping lion, and when she awakes, the world will shake. The lion China has already awakened, but this is a peaceful, pleasant and civilised lion.”

It’s the sort of comment that wouldn’t get anywhere near as much airtime were it not backed by substantial outlays. In France, China signed a 10-year accord allowing Airbus to assemble A320 planes on its soil until 2025; unblocked orders for jets and agreed to buy 70 more, a deal worth a combined US$10.2 billion; and more besides.

“China is now that friend you had in high school who always had the most pocket money — not terribly popular, but handy to have around when wallets are a little light, so you don’t mind him occasionally mouthing off.”

In Berlin, Xi said China opposed hegemony and power politics, never interfered in other countries’ domestic affairs, and didn’t seek expansionism:

“Only by following the path of peaceful development and safeguarding world peace with all other countries can China realise its own goal and make more contributions to the world.”

The cost for not pointing out the holes in this stance? A 1 billion euro deal allowing automaker Daimler to expand production at its Beijing-based venture, an agreement for yuan-denominated payments to be cleared in Frankfurt, an upgrade in bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership and lots of nice noises about building the Silk Road economic belt.

In July, Xi’s trip to South Korea was particularly fascinating. It was seen in the US as a sign of his resolve to unsettle the US’s alliances in north-east Asia and position China as the region’s dominant player.

The trip was noteworthy for two reasons — first, an apparent snub of traditional ally North Korea, a country that benefitted from probably the most subtle front page in all of government-mouthpiece China Daily’s history, and second, a tacit endorsement of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s frosty relationship with long-term rival (and vocal US ally) Japan.

The latter arose because China has found stoking nationalistic sentiment — particularly with Japan, over a chain of islands in the East China Sea — to be an effective way of distracting from political turbulence at home. Xi’s trip might not have driven a wedge between the US and South Korea, but the possibility was discussed — and the China Dream made an appearance in Seoul.

Over six days in September, Xi visited the Maldives, where funds were offered for a large road bridge, and promises made to operate the tourist airport; Sri Lanka, where a landfill island conveniently next to a new Chinese port will be turned into a commercial town for $1.3 billion; and India, where he made a commitment that China would invest $20 billion over the next five years.

In each of these countries, Xi published signed op-eds articulating the China dream, and emphasising economic and diplomatic ties. The Sri Lankan version draws upon a familiar hymn sheet:

“… Sri Lanka’s dream of national strength and prosperity has much in common with the Chinese dream of realising the great renewal of the Chinese nation.”

Similar pieces were published in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium in March. Each time, as has been the case with Xi’s Australian speeches, China’s economic reforms and outreach have been favourably compared to local economic developments — an alliance not just of economies, but of aspirations, of dreams.

China is now that friend you had in high school who always had the most pocket money — not terribly popular, but handy to have around when wallets are a little light, so you don’t mind him occasionally mouthing off. Still, the FTA with Australia is undoubtedly substantial and significant, so what was the reason for it?

Perhaps it’s the investor-state dispute settlement provisions, which might allow Chinese companies to sue the Australian government should public-interest legislation affect their investments. Maybe it’s as simple as demonstrating that an economic alliance with China may prove more alluring than a military dalliance with the US. Or it just might be the recognition of this Australian government’s propensity for prostration at the altar of big business. Soft power, hard cash: rinse and repeat.

It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.