Penny Wong was advised to warn her Chinese counterpart that Russia was responsible for “dangerous nuclear rhetoric” and must be put under pressure to end the war with Ukraine, documents reveal.
Briefing notes obtained by Guardian Australia give an insight into the key points that were expected to be raised by Wong during the first visit to China by an Australian minister in three years, including on human rights.
The documents, released under freedom of information laws, reveal just how low the Australian government’s expectations were for the December trip, with the immediate goal being to ease turbulence in the relationship.
“A stable relationship is a platform we can build on,” according to the briefing material provided to Wong before her meeting with the then foreign minister Wang Yi.
The documents have been released at a time of growing speculation of further progress in the relationship with Australia’s top trading partner, even after the Aukus announcement triggered criticism from Beijing.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s briefing pack for Wong’s trip to China included language stressing that Australia “is a strong proponent of international rules, norms and standards that protect sovereign interests and underpin the security and prosperity of our region”.
While the documents are not a record of what was said in the meeting, they reveal the way that Dfat advised Wong to raise a number of issues.
Wong was prepared to use the trip to press the Australian government’s view that China should use its relationship with Russia to pressure Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine.
“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is causing global insecurity, human suffering and economic disruption,” the Dfat notes for Wong said.
“There can be no doubt that it is the responsibility of Russia to end this war. President Putin’s dangerous nuclear rhetoric has had a further destabilising impact.”
Last week China’s president, Xi Jinping, travelled to Russia for a meeting with Putin, who welcomed Beijing’s proposals for peace in Ukraine. That plan urged all parties to avoid nuclear escalation but, critically, did not suggest Russia withdraw its forces.
In the days after the visit, Putin announced that Moscow had made a deal to station tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
The Dfat documents show how Wong planned to raise human rights with her Chinese counterpart by suggesting that China was not being singled out.
“Australia is committed to advancing human rights globally. That is why we advocate for human rights in other countries, including China,” the notes said.
In her press conference in Beijing after the meeting, Wong confirmed she had raised human rights, along with the cases of detained Australian citizens and ongoing “trade blockages”.
Many parts of the document are redacted, because of the potential impact on diplomatic relations.
Wong has always been keen to avoid use of the term “reset” when talking about China, because that implies a fundamental shift in Australia’s policy positions. She has instead called for both countries to navigate their enduring differences “wisely”.
James Laurenceson, the director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said on Monday that he was upbeat about the prospects for the relationship in 2023.
“The relationship has a bit more resilience and stability in it now because both sids have agreed to re-engage with realistic expectations,” he said.
Laurenceson noted that even a week after the Aukus announcement, the Chinese ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, wrote an oped in the Australian Financial Review that said the two countries were “well positioned to become peacefully coexisting and mutually beneficial partners”.
Xiao wrote that the relationship was “picking up a positive trend of stabilisation and improvement” and China stood ready to work with Australia to “objectively view and properly handle differences”.
Laurenceson, who has long argued that defence policies such as Aukus were already baked in to Beijing’s calculations, said he did not think the San Diego announcement would throw the broader diplomatic effort off-course.
“There was diplomatic grumbling in Beijing by the foreign ministry but beyond that there was nothing,” he said.
Laurenceson predicted further easing of China’s trade actions against Australian export sectors through the course of 2023, although that was likely to be a gradual process.
The assistant trade minister, Tim Ayres, is due to arrive in China on Tuesday to attend the Bo’ao Forum for Asia annual conference – the first attendance by an Australian government minister in this event since 2016.
The trip is likely to help pave the way for a future trip by the trade minister, Don Farrell, as soon as April.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said there had been some progress in removing trade impediments.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, is also making his way to China this week, while the WA leader, Mark McGowan, plans to travel to the country soon.