Chinese PM lands in Australia for first such visit in 7 years

MELBOURNE, Australia — Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrived in Australia on Saturday on a mission to repair relations with panda diplomacy, lobsters and China’s global dominance in critical minerals at the top of the order of the day.

His visit is the first by a Chinese prime minister in seven years and is expected to pave the way for President Xi Jinping’s first trip to Australia since 2014.

Bilateral relations collapsed during the decade in power of Australia’s previous conservative administration, with Beijing imposing a series of official and unofficial trade barriers on Australian goods in 2020, costing exporters billions of dollars.

This is Li’s second leg of the tour after New Zealand and will end in Malaysia.

Before leaving New Zealand, the Prime Minister told an audience in the city of Auckland on Saturday that his country was committed to creating a world-class business environment and supporting foreign businesses to grow in China, according to Chinese state media.

Li said there was vast potential for collaboration between China and New Zealand in areas such as green development and that Beijing welcomed New Zealand companies, such as dairy company Fonterra, seizing such opportunities. opportunities, Xinhua news agency reported.

During the Australian leg of his trip that ends Tuesday, China’s most powerful politician after Xi is expected to visit Adelaide Zoo in the South Australian state capital, where his Air China flight landed from Auckland.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas welcomed Li on the tarmac at Adelaide Airport.

Li will also visit a Chinese-controlled lithium processing plant in the Kwinana Beach industrial zone in Western Australia state, as well as the Australian Parliament in the national capital Canberra.

China initiated a reset of its relations after the election of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labor Party in 2022.

Relations with the previous administration collapsed due to legislation banning covert foreign interference in Australian politics, the exclusion of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the rollout of the national 5G network due to security concerns and Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the causes of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beijing imposed a series of official and unofficial trade blockages in 2020 on a range of Australian exports, including coal, wine, barley and timber, which cost up to A$20 billion ($13 billion). dollars) per year.

All trade bans have now been lifted, with the exception of Australian live lobster exports. Commerce Minister Don Farrell predicted that this obstacle would also be removed soon after Li’s visit with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao.

“I am confident that this week’s visit will result in a very positive outcome for lobster producers,” Farrell told reporters on Wednesday.

Many observers expect Australia to be more cautious about its future economic relations with China after being subjected to what many see as economic coercion in recent years.

Benjamin Herscovitch, a China expert from the Australian National University, describes an “emerging expectations gap” between Beijing and Canberra.

“Beijing, now that the campaign of coercion is over, wants… to turn the page and embark on a more expansive, more positive and more cooperative bilateral relationship,” Herscovitch said.

“Canberra says, ‘Look. Wait. We want trade restrictions removed and high-level diplomacy restored. But we are not interested in deeper scientific and technological cooperation with China because we view that potentially, from an Australian perspective, as a security threat,” Herscovitch added.

Li plans to visit Tianqi Lithium Energy Australia’s processing plant south of Western Australia’s capital Perth on Tuesday to highlight China’s interest in investing in critical minerals, the sources said. media. The plant produces battery-grade lithium hydroxide for electric vehicles.

Australia shares US concerns about China’s dominance in critical minerals, which are essential components of the global transition to renewable energy sources.

Citing Australia’s national interests, Treasurer Jim Chalmers recently ordered five China-linked companies to divest their shares in rare earth mining company Northern Minerals.

Less controversially, Li is expected to visit Adelaide Zoo on Sunday, home to Chinese-born giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni since 2009.

The Adelaide Advertiser newspaper reported that Li would announce the pandas would be replaced by another breeding pair after they returned to China in November.

As bilateral economic relations recover from the lowest levels reached in recent years, security relations between the two free trade partners appear more strained.

An annual poll conducted in June by the Sydney-based foreign policy think tank Lowy Institute found that 53 percent of Australians surveyed view China as a security threat rather than an economic partner.

Albanese said he would discuss with Li on Monday at an annual leaders’ meeting recent clashes between the two countries’ militaries in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, which Australia says puts Australian personnel at risk. hazard.

The prime minister spent three days in New Zealand, a free trade partner with which China has more harmonious relations than with Australia. Li described China and New Zealand as “good friends”.

His next stop will be Malaysia, where bilateral relations are further complicated by competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon told Li on Saturday: “China is one of New Zealand’s most important and important relationships. »

Li used his trip to express concerns about New Zealand’s intention to join a military technology sharing agreement under the AUKUS agreement between Australia and the United States and Britain. Brittany. The main objective of the agreement is to provide Australia with a fleet of submarines powered by American nuclear technology.

Graham-McLay contributed from Wellington, New Zealand.

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