Premier Li Qiang (centre) talks with Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago.
Li Qiang insists ties between China and Australia are back on track after twists and turns. Image by Kelly Barnes/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Tough talks ahead as Chinese leader arrives in Canberra

June 17, 2024

Tough discussions on foreign interference, trade and political prisoners are looming over parliament as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese prepares to host the Chinese premier at the heart of Australian democracy.

Premier Li Qiang arrived in South Australia on Saturday where he visited China’s pandas at Adelaide Zoo before strolling around a local winery.

But on Monday, China’s second-most powerful leader will go from day tripper to diplomat when he holds talks with Mr Albanese in Canberra for an annual leaders’ meeting.

China's Premier Li Qiang.
 China’s Premier Li Qiang is set to discuss thorny issues with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Image by Asanka Ratnayake/AAP PHOTOS 

Remaining trade tariffs on lobsters and beef, and the imprisonment of Australian writer Yang Hengjun will be top of the agenda as Australia continues to stabilise the bilateral relationship, cabinet minister Murray Watt said.

“We now have dialogue, we are now in a position to raise the issues, and it makes it much more likely that we can resolve them when we can actually have these discussions,” he told ABC radio on Monday.

“The careful efforts of the Albanese government to stabilise this relationship is paying real dividends for our farmers, our agriculture sector, our mining sector.

“That means jobs for Australians and export dollars, which is really important for our economy.”

He also noted there had been “enormous progress” in restoring trade with China in the past few years after sanctions on coal, wine and barley were lifted.

Pro China supporters and anti China protesters in Canberra.
 Pro China supporters and anti China protesters hold banners on Commonwealth Ave in Canberra. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

The opposition, including Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, are urging the government to stand up for itself when addressing thornier issues like foreign interference and broader geopolitical issues.

“If you’ve got a choice between us leasing two pandas or having a more peaceful world under global rules – well, I think I’ll take the latter,” he told Sunrise.

“We have got to stand up for ourselves, because otherwise, people say you’re weak, and if you’re weak, you get walked over. 

“And the biggest issue for your kids in the future … is not the weather, it’s how we can sustain ourselves with a military superpower that’s run by a totalitarian regime.”

Senator Watt said these issues had already been raised and would be a topic of discussion during Monday’s talks.

“We and our security agencies in particular, work very hard to counter any attempts by any country to engage in foreign interference here in Australia,” he said.

Both pro and anti-China protesters have congregated throughout Canberra.

Red and yellow flags are emblazoned across parliament’s lawns in a sign of nationalist pride while banners accusing the Chinese government of committing genocide flank the city’s main roads.

Wang Wang the Panda at Adelaide Zoo.
 The panda diplomacy part of Premier Li Qiang’s visit is over. Now the tough talking begins. Image by Asanka Ratnayake/AAP PHOTOS 

Premier Li’s visit is the first by a Chinese premier to Australia in seven years and comes after a period of turbulence for the country’s biggest trading partner, while recent military incidents in international waters have threatened the diplomatic thaw.

The remaining trade bans are expected to be lifted within weeks but exporters could well ask if they might face them again, Australian National University research fellow Benjamin Herscovitch said.

“It’s always possible that Beijing, if there’s some kind of serious infraction in Beijing’s mind, could throw down the hammer on Australian exporters once again,” Dr Herscovitch told ABC.

“The battle here is going to be one of a whole host of specific granular policy areas where Beijing is trying to inch forward and get additional concessions from Canberra.”

“Canberra will be trying to hold the line, not give Beijing too much but also not once again enrage Beijing and prompt Beijing to impose trade restrictions once again.”

China imposed sanctions on $20 billion of Australian products in 2020 after the former coalition government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A trip to Australia’s resource powerhouse Western Australia will make up the latter part of the visit, which is taking place with clouds hanging over the two countries’ broader relationship even as many trade restrictions have been removed.