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Australian PM Albanese visits China as relations emerge from deep freeze

SYDNEY: Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flies to China on Saturday (Nov 4) for a landmark visit, a sign that icy relations have thawed with the trading giant and strategic rival.

His four-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai is the first by an Australian leader in seven years and is widely seen as recognition that relations are on a surer footing after a diplomatic breakdown that hit billions of dollars in trade.

Since its election in May last year, Albanese’s government has pursued a twin-track China strategy – seeking friendlier ties with his country’s biggest trading partner while countering Beijing’s growing clout in the Pacific.

Three years ago, China and Australia were at loggerheads.

China slapped punitive tariffs on a range of Australian commodities in 2020, angered by the previous conservative government’s barring of tech giant Huawei from 5G contracts and its call for a probe into the origins of COVID-19.

But with a change in tone under Australia’s new government, most of those barriers have since been lifted.

“China-Australia relations are now at a critical juncture of setting off and sailing off again,” China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian wrote in an opinion piece ahead of the four-day trip.

The ambassador hailed the return of Australian coal, timber and barley exports to the Chinese market through “the relentless efforts of both sides”.

China has signalled it will also remove a tariff wall it imposed on wine, one of the few products still blocked, after a five-month review.

Despite the easier diplomatic and trade relations, Albanese has made clear that the countries are not strategically aligned.

“We are clear-eyed about this. We are two nations with very different histories, values and political systems,” he said during a visit to Washington last month.

The prime minister warned that China does not see itself as a power in favour of the “status quo”.

“It seeks a region that is much more accommodating of its values of interests,” he said.

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“WRONG ALIGNMENT”

Every nation that had benefited from the “international rules-based order” had a responsibility to work together to protect it, the Australian leader said.

He called for defending each nation’s right to choose its own destiny, upholding human rights and maintaining peace including in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing will seek to portray Albanese’s trip as Australia “abandoning its previous wrong alignment” with the United States to “sabotage China’s rise”, said Yun Sun, senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“China is trying to drive a wedge between the US and Australia,” he said.

Bec Strating, associate professor of international relations at La Trobe University, said that while the trip signalled the thawing of a diplomatic deep freeze, no one should expect a resolution of all their differences.

“Security issues continue to really be a substantive concern between Australia and China”.

Albanese has made no secret of those differences.

His government has agreed to buy up to five US nuclear-powered submarines and later build a new model with US and British technology, joining US efforts to parry Beijing’s expanding military, economic and diplomatic footprint in the Pacific region.

In addition to the submarines, to be procured under a so-called AUKUS pact signed in 2021 with Washington and London, Australia has refocused its strategy on long-range defence to keep adversaries at arm’s length.

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“MALIGN, DECEPTIVE”

Engagement with China is in Australia’s national interest so long as it remembers that Beijing has different strategic objectives, said Justin Bassi, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank.

“Those structural differences have been caused by China’s strategic objective to be the military and technologically dominant power in the region,” he said.

China was using “malign, deceptive means” such as cyber intrusions and economic coercion to achieve its aims, Bassi said.

China last month released Australian journalist Cheng Lei after three years in detention on opaque espionage charges.

The sons of Australian writer Yuan Jun – who has been in jail in China since 2019 on spying accusations – have asked Albanese to raise his case and achieve the same “miracle” for their father.

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