Australian Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell held meetings and visited businesses in Beijing on Friday, in a sign of progress in restoring a nearly decade-long rift in relations with China.
Farrell met with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, among others, following a commitment in February to improve dialogue “at all levels as a pathway towards the full resumption of trade.”
In Sydney, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Friday that the two sides need to “develop understanding and dialogue and I’ve said we’ll cooperate with China where we can, we’ll disagree where we must, and we’ll engage in a national interest.”
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade totaling US$287 billion in 2022. China recently resumed imports of Australian coal, cotton, and copper, and Farrell has said on his visit he would push for a review of tariffs on Australian barley.
China blocked such imports in retaliation for moves targeting alleged Chinese interference in Australian elections and political life and in social organizations in the large Australian-Chinese community.
While trade ties seem to be improving, the two countries remain far apart on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.
On his arrival Thursday, Farrell said he hoped his visit would “continue that process of stabilizing our relationship and work through a successful pathway for the resolution of all of our outstanding trade differences.”
“The issues didn’t occur overnight and they’re not going to be resolved overnight,” he said.
At a news conference late Friday, Farrell said he raised concern over the cases of Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australia journalist who formerly worked for China’s state broadcaster, and Yang Jun, a Chinese-Australian writer also know by his penname, Yang Hengjun. Both are under detention in China with only vague accusations lodged against them and no word on when they might be tried or released.
In April, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said bilateral relations were unlikely to return to the level of the early 2000s, when trade was separated from political and strategic priorities.
Since then, Australia has expanded security cooperation with the United States, China’s main rival for influence in the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing has strongly criticized Australia’s participation in the so-called AUKUS partnership, which links it with the United States and Britain to create an Australian fleet of eight submarines powered by U.S. nuclear technology, largely in response to China’s growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea, the South Pacific and the East China Sea.
Albanese will host U.S. President Joe Biden and the leaders of India and Japan – countries with which China has active land and sea border disputes – for a May 24 summit of leaders of the so-called Quad nations.
Australia has also blocked the sale of assets, including critical infrastructure, to Chinese companies on national security grounds in recent years.