The stars in the Middle Kingdom have aligned for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who will make his first trip to China as Prime Minister on April 14-15, a rare visit to a major Australian partner in the midst of what is, effectively, an election campaign.

It’s the briefest of trips, even by the ignominiously perfunctory standards of Australian cabinet ministers in recent years, but surely he will have his work cut out for him amid ever-growing concerns over both China’s economy and its strategic adventurism.

Turnbull’s office has been planning an April trip to visit Australia’s largest trading and export partner since the end of last year, with the aim to have the PM’s visit coincide with one end of the bloated Australia Week in China program, which runs from April 11-15 across nine cities.

It’s touted by the government’s public relations machine as the “biggest evah” trade mission, but the truth is Australia has come late to this game, and more targeted niche trips are widely seen by trade experts as more effective.

Despite its brevity and being limited to just Shanghai (business) and Beijing (politics and Chinese leader Xi Jinping), Turnbull’s first official foray into China will be fascinating to watch. Unlike Australia’s last two leaders, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, Turnbull is an avowed internationalist with a deep and abiding interest in the the moving parts of the global economy and geopolitics.

He revels in the international stage and has quickly and efficiently ticked the two most important boxes here Washington and Tokyo, impressing commentators in Washington (no doubt to the chagrin of many Abbott cheerleaders in the Australian conservative press) with his easy rapport with Barack Obama, a man not inclined to the “personal relationship” spin on national alliances.

Turnbull knows China as well as any Australian prime minister has at the start of his term — including, albeit from a completely different perspective, the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd.

He has has done business in China as a banker and, over the years (including his time as an opposition frontbencher), has made many trips to the country with wife Lucy. Their son lives in Hong Kong and last year married a Chinese woman. So Turnbull should be very clear-eyed about China and have his own view, informed by his extensive contacts in and around the country, about its economy, independent of the generally behind-the-eight-ball forecasts of most of the Australian bureaucracy — especially Treasury, the department that should be at the bleeding edge of China-watching but has a history of dropping the forecasting ball.

By the time Turnbull gets to China in just over two weeks, it should be clear that the post-Chinese New Year iron ore rally, led by seasonal steel mill re-stocking and amplified by financial commodities speculators, was a dead-cat bounce.

But these days, iron ore — only a few years ago the very pointy end of “the relationship” as diplomats and politicians like to cast it — is taking a back seat. The political conversation between Australia and China is changing fast. Agriculture — more specifically, investment in Australian farmland — is the new quarry.

Despite all the hue and cry at times, Australia has what China needs and wants — commodities and education — and vice versa — capital, students, tourists and cheap goods. That’s just economics, and little is likely to change in the next few years beyond China’s economy struggling further. But there’s an increasingly sharp edge to exchanges between the two countries over China’s relentless, illegal push into the South China Sea. And Beijing is growing angrier with Australia’s embrace of Japan and support of the Philippines in its efforts to take China to international arbitration courts.

There is also the tricky matter of China attempting to hunt down the authors (and their families) of an anonymous letter critical of Xi.

All this is fertile yet slippery ground for the opposition. Yet its foreign affairs spokesperson and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek has landed few blows on the government’s careful, surefooted Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, in a portfolio where any departure form bipartisanship must be done with extreme caution. Critics in Australia’s security and diplomatic apparatus believe Bishop has has pulled her punches with China, despite some fighting words.

Perhaps Turnbull will take his cue from German President Joachim Gauck, who used his visit to China last week to deliver a broadside to the Communist Party.

“Most people were neither happy nor liberated,” Gauck explained to students in Shanghai about East Germany under Communist rule. “And the entire system lacked proper legitimacy. Free, equal and secret public elections were not held. The result was a lack of credibility, which went hand in hand with a culture of distrust between the rulers and those they ruled.”

Or perhaps not.

In Australia, beyond the “save the farm” rhetoric of the Nationals and their socialist bedfellows, the Greens, there are few votes in this stuff. So sometimes it’s just better to keep quiet rather than expose oneself as a neophyte, which Plibersek, who has certainly not made the sort of effort to do the hard yards in China and Asia Bishop did in opposition, remains.

So, with business pointedly the centerpiece of the trip in an effort to avoid difficult questions on defence, one question remains for Turnbull after all the noise about the free-trade agreement with China (done at considerable public expense): could he please explain how this is positioning Australia ahead of its international rivals in the Chinese services sectors, which, the experts keep chanting, are the future of our economic relationship?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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