Chinese Premier Li Qiang Signals Thaw in Trade Relations with Australia

Sun Jun 16 2024
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SYDNEY: Chinese Premier Li Qiang mixed a dash of “panda diplomacy” with a visit to a historic vineyard on Sunday to celebrate a thaw in once-icy trade ties with Australia.

Li, the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Australia in seven years, arrived for a four-day trip that symbolizes a potential revival in bilateral trade. This visit comes as Beijing recently lifted punitive measures against several key Australian exports.

China stands as Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 30 percent of its exports last year, particularly in major commodities such as iron ore and coal. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached Aus$327 billion ($216 billion) in 2023.

In a move to set a positive tone, Premier Li visited Adelaide Zoo under sunny skies and announced China’s decision to loan new giant pandas to replace the current pair, Wang Wang and Fu Ni. The pandas, beloved by Australians, will return to China by year-end after failing to produce offspring since their arrival in 2009.

“I guess they must have missed their home a lot,” remarked Li, highlighting the gesture as a response to the wishes of Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who has been instrumental in stabilizing relations with Beijing. Wong expressed her happiness at the news, calling it a “symbol of goodwill” that would delight her children.

Following the zoo visit, Li joined Wong for a lunch at Magill Estate vineyard, known for the historic Penfolds winery and now part of Treasury Wine Estates. This venue underscored Australia’s rich wine industry, which was among several sectors hit by Chinese sanctions during diplomatic tensions in 2020. The tariffs, costing Australian exporters billions annually, have gradually lifted under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s administration, which adopted a more conciliatory approach towards China.

Li is scheduled to meet Albanese in Canberra on Monday for closed-door talks covering contentious topics such as foreign influence, human rights, regional military activities, and competition in the Pacific. Australia remains cautious about China’s expanding influence in the South Pacific, where Beijing seeks to deepen ties with island nations traditionally aligned with Australia.

“We are in a state of permanent contest in the Pacific. That is the reality,” Wong acknowledged in a television interview.

Despite these challenges, Li emphasized the importance of mutual respect, seeking common ground, and fostering mutually beneficial cooperation. His visit marks a shift from years of strained relations, signaling Australia’s return to a more cordial standing in Beijing’s eyes.

“Li’s visit sends a message that ‘Australia is back to being seen as a friendly country,'” noted Melissa Conley Tyler, honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute.

Li’s agenda also includes a visit to a lithium mine in Perth, highlighting economic opportunities amid ongoing diplomatic complexities. His trip is expected to pave the way for renewed dialogue and cooperation between China and Australia.

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