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Australia, China Envoys Reopen Delicate Dialog at G-20

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- The foreign ministers of Australia and China met Friday for the first time since 2019 as the two nations try to reset a relationship that has been marred in recent years by diplomatic tensions and economic tariffs.

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The ministers “spoke frankly and listened carefully to each other’s priorities and concerns,” according to a statement from Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong after the meeting in Bali with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. “We have our differences, but it is in both our countries’ interests for the relationship to be stabilized.”

China is Australia’s largest trading partner but relations have deteriorated over the past five or so years, with rising tensions and bilateral criticism culminating in China imposing tariffs on exports of wine and barley in 2020 and blocking trade in other goods. With the election of a new government in Canberra in May, both sides have been trying to repair the relationship.

“Dialog is always a good thing,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters Saturday. “That’s how you develop relations between mature countries.”

“Of course this is just a first step and I note that our foreign minister raised the issues of concern including the ongoing treatment of Cheng Lei and Dr. Yang and others as well as the sanctions that remain in place disadvantaging Australian economic interests.”

Cheng and Yang Hengjun are Australian citizens currently detained by China. In the meeting, Wong also raised “Australia’s concerns about a range of bilateral, regional, trade and consular issues,” according to her office’s statement.

China’s Demands

Wang said that China is willing to work to get relations back on track, according to a statement released late Saturday. The foreign minister said that the root of the bilateral problems was that the previous government in Canberra treated China as an “opponent” or a “threat,” and said he hoped that Australia would take practical actions and improve its understanding of China. Specifically, Australia:

  • Must treat China as a partner, not an opponent

  • Must adhere to the principle of seeking common ground and shelving differences

  • Must not target China or be under the influence of third parties

  • Must build a positive and pragmatic foundation for public opinion

Australia seeks to “resolve issues calmly,” Wong said in the statement, but later indicated that the government is unwilling to change some policies to improve ties. “We are a government that has made certain decisions on the basis of our national interests and our national security and our sovereignty and we won’t be resiling from those,” Wong told reporters, according to Reuters.

After the pandemic outbreak, Australia’s request in 2020 that China allow inspections to determine the origin of the coronavirus enraged the Chinese government, which responded with tariffs and other measures.

Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian said last month that recent years had been “a difficult period” for the relationship, but that the election offered an opportunity for the “possible improvement” of ties.

Read more: Australian Envoy Decries China Secrecy in Anchor’s Spy Trial

Even with the Bali meeting, there are substantial hurdles both sides will need to overcome to genuinely improve relations. In addition to trade, Canberra has repeatedly criticized Chinese actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and with regards to Taiwan. Beijing is annoyed that Australia has banned Huawei Technologies Co. from participating in the 5G network rollout, blocked investment by some Chinese companies, and investigations into foreign interference.

China has repeatedly said that Australia needs to take steps to improve ties, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Zhao Lijian saying this week that “there is no ‘auto-pilot’ mode in improving China-Australia relations. A reset requires concrete actions,” he said.

Australia has in turn demanded that China stop obstructing trade, with Albanese saying last month that any further warming of relations would depend on whether or not China’s government agreed to remove trade sanctions and barriers on Australian exports.

Trade Minister Don Farrell told the Australian newspaper Thursday that “tariffs on Australian exports need to be withdrawn.” If China was to do so, then Australia could withdraw its complaints to the World Trade Organization about China’s actions, he said.

Both sides recognized the meeting as a “first step,” Wong said afterward, according to ABC. “We’ve got a path to walk and we’ll see if it can lead to a better place between the two countries.”

(Updates with statement from China from sixth paragraph.)

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