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Li Qiang is undertaking the first trip to Australia by a Chinese premier in seven years. Image by AP PHOTO
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Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrives in Australia

June 15, 2024

A chance for the prime minister to lower the temperature in the relationship with top Chinese officials on a four-day visit will not come at the expense of Australia’s values and interests, the treasurer says.  

Li Qiang, who is second only to President Xi Jinping in the Beijing pecking order, arrived in Adelaide on Saturday evening as he undertakes the first trip to Australia by a Chinese premier in seven years.

He is expected to engage in panda diplomacy with Anthony Albanese by extending the loan of Wang Wang and Fu Ni, described by the city’s zoo as Australia’s “only breeding pair” of the globally-loved animal.

The pandas have not procreated, leading to concerns about their fate.

 China’s Premier Li Qiang has been greeted warmly by wellwishers as he arrived in Adelaide. Image by Asanka Ratnayake/AAP PHOTOS 

Mr Li will also meet with winemakers, who are likely to raise a glass to the premier after China lifted restrictions on Australian wine.

Beijing has gradually dropped bans on exports with less than $1 billion worth of trade restrictions remaining on rock lobsters and two meatworks.

Australia China Business Council president David Olsson has been involved in six months of political and business discussions ahead of the visit.

“I’m looking forward to positive outcomes,” he said.

“We won’t see any major reshaping of the relationship, but we will see a framework developed for further conversations and dialogue around points of interest.

“There are also high expectations we will see the removal of the remaining trade restrictions.”

While the lobster farmers – whose revenue halved, hitting livelihoods and forcing business sales – might join the winemakers in a glass or two, clouds hang over the broader relationship.

The imprisonment of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who received a suspended death sentence in February and remains in jail, and the targeting of Australian residents by Hong Kong authorities are thorny points.

So too are the growing number of incidents between the countries’ militaries as China’s powers grow and its influence in the Pacific region expands.

The opposition has warned the prime minister not to go easy on Mr Li.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers on Saturday said the government would not shy away from confronting China on important issues.

“We’ve made it clear on earlier occasions that we are prepared to speak up for those values and interests when that’s appropriate,” he said.

“We don’t pretend that isn’t sometimes a difficult relationship to manage but we do believe that when you engage meaningfully with … countries like China, then the ultimate beneficiaries of that are the people of Australia.”

Companies are also looking for an easing of visa restrictions.

The commodities Australia exports to China to produce the steel, copper and aluminium that form the backbone of its economy add an important dimension to relations.

Both nations are going through a similar seismic shift in their economies, Mr Olsson noted, referring to Mr Albanese’s signature Future Made in Australia initiative and the global energy transition.

Though there are security concerns with Chinese investment in sensitive industries, there’s plenty of scope for co-operation and profit.

There have been long discussions at senior political and business levels on collaboration on renewable energy and other areas where China leads, such as batteries and electric vehicles.

Wang Wang the panda at Adelaide Zoo
 China’s Premier Li Qiang is expected to engage in panda diplomacy during his time in Adelaide. Image by Sam Wundke/AAP PHOTOS 

Mr Li will travel to Canberra for talks with the prime minister on Monday before finishing his visit in Perth.

Mr Albanese will be keen to drum up more business from the nation’s biggest trading partner to keep the base of the relationship intact while managing the geopolitical elements of China’s growth and projection of power.

As Mr Olsson said, “China is not going away”.