Australian PM's visit to China signals a renewed era of engagement and economic cooperation
By Zhao Wei  ·  2023-11-13  ·   Source: NO.46 NOVEMBER 16, 2023
A freighter carrying iron ore is docked at Dampier Port in Australia on October 20 (XINHUA)

The cheerful invitation "Come and say G'day!" echoed across downtown Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, on November 1.

The voice originated from an unexpected source, a giant computer-generated kangaroo named Ruby, Tourism Australia's new mascot. Gazing out from a 3D billboard, Ruby made her debut in China as part of a new promotional campaign launched by the Australian government agency.

Ruby's arrival coincided with a visit to China by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. While addressing a Tourism Australia luncheon in Shanghai on November 5, Albanese welcomed the expected return of Chinese travelers. "You have been greatly missed," he remarked, evoking the spirit of Ruby's warm greeting.

A visit of great significance

Shanghai was the first stop on Albanese's four-day trip to China starting on November 4. He announced the visit half a month earlier on October 22.

One of the things that makes this visit noteworthy is that Albanese himself stated it commemorated the 50th anniversary of then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's historic visit to China in 1973. After first visiting China as the leader of the Australian Labor Party (then in opposition) in 1971, Whitlam promptly initiated diplomatic ties with China after becoming prime minister in 1972, and made history as the first Australian head of government to visit China in the following year.

Now, 50 years later, Albanese retraces Whitlam's footsteps as a symbol of the enduring bond between the two nations.

On November 6, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Albanese in Beijing. Xi said China and Australia, as Asia-Pacific nations and key Group of 20 members, share neither past disputes nor core conflicting interests, providing ample ground for them to forge a partnership based on mutual trust and shared success. He stressed that both countries should maintain their course toward positive bilateral ties in the face of significant global shifts.

As Australia and China have different political systems, it is normal for differences to occur, but they should not be allowed to define the relationship, Albanese said during the meeting. Australia and China share extensive common interests, and dialogue and cooperation are the right choice, he added.

On November 7, following talks between Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Albanese under the annual leaders' meeting mechanism between the two countries, a statement was published outlining the meeting's achievements. Both sides renewed their commitment to the robust China-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership, emphasizing the crucial role of stable and constructive bilateral ties. The document further mentioned collaboration in a variety of sectors including political discourse, trade, climate initiatives, cultural engagement, and streamlined visa processes—all aimed at reinforcing the partnership.

Albanese's visit to China has garnered significant attention both domestically and internationally. From 2018 to 2022, China-Australia relations experienced a consistent decline under the prime ministership of then Australian Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison. The Morrison administration consistently hyped up the "China threat" theory and pushed for the advancement of the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the United States, Japan and India, aimed at containing China.

But Albanese has recalibrated his predecessor's China policy and worked to stabilize ties with China since he came to power in May 2022.

Just one day after announcing his upcoming visit to China, Albanese embarked on an official trip to the U.S. from October 23 to 26. At a state luncheon hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on October 26, Albanese characterized his government's approach to China as "patient, calibrated and deliberate."

"China and the U.S. have maintained high-level dialogue and communication, and the United States should not interfere in Australia's efforts to improve its relationship with China," Li Jianjun, Director of the Australian Studies Center at Beijing Foreign Studies University and Secretary General of the Chinese Association for Australian Studies, told Beijing Review. "During his visit to the U.S., Albanese mentioned his upcoming trip to China and his views on the bilateral relationship between the two countries, conveying a signal of rationality and pragmatism in the diplomatic approach of the current Australian Government."

Beyond iron ore and lobster

In Shanghai, Albanese attended the opening ceremony of the Sixth China International Import Expo (CIIE) on November 5 and delivered a speech.

"Constructive economic engagement between countries helps to build relationships. That is why the government that I lead will continue to work constructively with China," Albanese said.

A record-breaking contingent of Australian companies made its presence felt at this year's CIIE. According to Austrade, the Australian Government's international trade and investment promotion body, over 250 Australian firms participated in the event.

Trade between China and Australia in the first nine months of this year reached 1.197 trillion yuan ($160 billion), marking a robust growth rate of 10.2 percent year on year, data from the General Administration of Customs of China showed. This growth story is not one-sided, as both exports and imports have seen positive upward trends. Notably, China's imports from Australia surged by an impressive 15.3 percent on an annual basis, consistently maintaining double-digit monthly growth throughout this year so far. Australia currently stands as China's leading overseas supplier of iron ore, underlining the strength of this trade relationship.

The year 2015 was significant in the trade relationship between China and Australia, with the two countries inking a landmark free trade agreement. Following the implementation of the agreement, tariffs on Australian exports including beef, wine and fruit to the Chinese market have been progressively reduced, driving up their trade volume. In 2020, however, China had to initiate a slew of inspection, quarantine and trade remedy measures on Australian imports arising from concerns including dumping by suppliers, affecting sectors including barley, wine, coal, lobster and timber.

On February 6 , Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao and Australian Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell held a meeting via video link. Following the interaction, the first between top trade officials of the two countries since 2019, the two ministries communicated on issues of mutual concern in bilateral trade to find mutually beneficial solutions. China lifted anti-dumping and countervailing duties on Australian barley in August, and both sides announced they had reached consensus in terms of properly settling disputes of common concern, including the ones concerning wine and wind towers, under the framework of the World Trade Organization, in October.

"We are really hoping with some expectation that the relationship between Australia and China improves greatly. We have seen that develop over the last few months," Philip Hobbs, General Manager of KB Seafood Co., shared with Beijing Review. While visiting Australian exhibitor stalls at the CIIE, Albanese posed for a photo holding a lobster with Trade Minister Don Farrell at Hobbs' booth on November 5.

The economic relationship between China and Australia goes beyond simply iron ore and seafood. It is a complex tapestry of mutual dependence and benefit. China needs Australia as a supplier of essential commodities like coal to power its rapid growth. At the same time, Australia depends on China's vast demand and purchasing power.

"China and Australia should enhance mutual understanding and trust through peaceful coexistence and achieve common development through mutually beneficial cooperation," Xi said during his meeting with Albanese. 

(Print Edition Title: Forging Ahead)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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