Australia foreign minister to visit China as diplomatic ties improve

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By Kirsty Needham and Renju Jose

SYDNEY, Dec 19 (Reuters) – Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong will visit China this week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Monday, signalling an improvement in diplomatic relations between Beijing and Canberra.

Wong will meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and hold the sixth Australia–China Foreign and Strategic Dialogue, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries on Wednesday.

It will be the first visit to China by an Australian minister since 2019, and the first formal talks in Beijing between the two nations’ top diplomats since 2018.

“Australia seeks a stable relationship with China; we will cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest,” Albanese said in a statement.

Diplomatic ties between Australia and its major trading partner China had deteriorated in recent years, with Beijing imposing sanctions on Australian exports after Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beijing was also angered by the previous Liberal government in Canberra effectively banning Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei from Australia’s 5G network.

A meeting between Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali last month signalled a thaw in ties, although China’s trade sanctions remain in place.

The chairman of the Business Council of Australia’s international engagement committee, Warwick Smith, said the business community welcomed Wong’s trip, which will take place in a “closed loop” and is restricted to one venue because of Beijing’s COVID-19 outbreak.

“It is to celebrate 50 year of relations with China. The significance of it is that it’s a meeting not in a conference, but a physical meeting in Beijing,” he told Reuters.

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, there would not be a business delegation travelling with Wong, and any such visit by business leaders was unlikely until March, he said.

Two Australian writers, Cheng Lei and blogger Yang Hengjun, are detained in Beijing awaiting the outcome of national security trials.

“I would like to see my colleague Cheng Lei released and I would like to see a rollback more rapidly of these trade containments,” Smith said.

Australian officials said no immediate breakthrough was expected on trade sanctions.

China remains the top buyer of Australia’s biggest export of iron ore, and is seeking Canberra’s endorsement to join a trans-Pacific trade pact.

Australia has said moves to improve ties with Beijing would not bring a shift in defence policy. In a joint statement by defence ministers in Washington this month, the security allies said Australia and the United States would counter China’s “destabilizing military activities”.

Photo: Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong

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