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Chinese Premier Li urges ‘shelving differences’ with Australia

Premier Li Qiang is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Australia since 2017
Premier Li Qiang is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Australia since 2017 - Copyright AFP JUSTIN TALLIS
Premier Li Qiang is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Australia since 2017 - Copyright AFP JUSTIN TALLIS

Chinese Premier Li Qiang called Saturday for “shelving differences” with Australia as he embarked on a four-day trip dangling the promise of expanded trade despite their geopolitical rivalry.

Li — the second most powerful man in China after President Xi Jinping  — touched down in Adelaide at the start of a diplomatic mission across the resource-rich continent.

China has gradually removed swingeing trade sanctions on Australian wine, timber, barley and beef exports imposed in 2020 during a diplomatic rift with the former conservative government. Tariffs on rock lobsters remain.

The measures cost Australian exporters an estimated Aus$20 billion ($13 billion) a year. 

Economic relations between the two countries have eased since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government took power in 2022 and adopted a softer diplomatic approach to Beijing.

“Mutual respect, seeking common ground while shelving differences and mutually beneficial cooperation” were key to growing China-Australia relations, Li said in a written arrival statement.

“A more mature, stable and fruitful comprehensive strategic partnership will be a treasure shared by the people of both countries.”

The premier waved at the aircraft door and was greeted on the airport tarmac in Adelaide by Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, other government officials, photographers and TV journalists.

Flying in from a similarly trade-centred visit to New Zealand, Li is the highest ranking Chinese official to visit either country since 2017.

The premier will tour a South Australian wine grower and check in on two Chinese-loaned giant pandas in Adelaide Zoo, hold talks with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese before tucking into a state lunch in Canberra, and then travel to a lithium mine in Western Australia.

The Chinese premier’s visit “reflects the improving tone,” said Ryan Neelam, director of the foreign policy programme at Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute.

“The relationship is now more focused on the economic opportunities between them than it has in the past, which has been overshadowed by the political and security differences,” he said.

“But at the same time, those differences haven’t gone away.”

– Wine and pandas –

Australia has tightened its defence alliance with the United States as it seeks to parry Beijing’s expanding diplomatic and military influence on island states scattered around the Pacific region.

China describes the AUKUS security pact between Washington, London and Canberra — a deal that would equip Australia with nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines — as a divisive measure that raises nuclear proliferation risks.

In the most recent a sign of military tensions, Australia accused China of “unsafe and unprofessional” conduct after one of its warplanes allegedly fired flares in the path of a naval helicopter last month over the Yellow Sea.

Albanese has promised to tell Li the behaviour was “inappropriate”.

Canberra also reacted with “outrage” when a Beijing court handed down a suspended death sentence to Chinese-Australian dissident writer Yang Jun earlier this year.

But such disagreements are likely to be aired behind closed doors, Neelam said.

Instead, Li sets a friendlier tone on the first full day of his trip Sunday — visiting the famed Barossa winemaking region in Adelaide, hometown of Australia’s foreign minister, who is credited with helping stabilise relations with Beijing.

China’s tariffs had effectively blocked premium Australian wine exports, worth an estimated Aus$1 billion a year, until just three months ago.

First, though, Li will pop into Adelaide Zoo where giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni have been on loan from China since 2009. 

Hopes are high that the pair — instruments of China’s so-called panda diplomacy — will be allowed to stay despite producing no offspring in their time together.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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