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Australia seeks to 'manage differences wisely' with China

March 20, 2024

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Australian counterpart Penny Wong have held talks in Canberra. While both sides sought to hail improvements in ties of late, they also noted tensions.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong (R) shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi before their bilateral meeting in Canberra on March 20, 2024. i
Wang Yi moved on to Australia for talks with Penny Wong on Wednesday following his trip to New Zealand on the previous dayImage: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Wednesday that diplomatic relations between China and Australia are "on the right track" and that the two countries' economies are "highly complementary" and have "great potential."

"Every time we meet, the mutual trust between the two sides increases, and China-Australia relations take a step forward," he said during his visit to the Australian capital.

Beijing's top diplomat made the comments in a statement released by his ministry after meetings with his counterpart Penny Wong in Canberra.

Wang's visit is the first to Australia by a Chinese foreign minister since 2017 and signals a thaw in relations after ties became strained in part due to Australian calls for an independent investigation into the origin of COVID-19 in 2020.

In response, Beijing imposed tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Australian commodity imports, most of which have been lifted since a change of government in Canberra two years ago. "We must not hesitate, deviate or turn back", the statement said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (Center-R) attends a bilateral meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong (Center-L) in Canberra on March 20, 2024. Yi
China is a major export market for resource-rich AustraliaImage: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

With Free Tibet protesters gathered on Parliament lawn outside and Beijing increasingly critical of Australia's role in the AUKUS military pact alongside the United States and the United Kingdom, Wang's official statement also revealed lingering tensions.

"Regarding China's sovereignty, dignity and legitimate concerns, we hope that the Australian side will continue to abide by commitments it has made ... and properly handle them," it read, in an apparent reference to Taiwan and rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Australia: relationship with China requires 'ongoing work'

Wong, for her part, welcomed progress on the lifting of Chinese tariffs on Australian wine, beer and lobster but said the relationship between Australia and China requires "ongoing work."

"A stable relationship between Australia and China doesn't just happen, it needs ongoing work," she said.

She said the Australian government would attempt to "manage differences wisely" but that it was in both countries' interest to have "a mature and productive relationship."

She said she raised Australia's concerns about human rights in China and said Canberra would continue to advocate for the release of Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer who was given a suspended death sentence by a Beijing court last month, reiterating that Australia is opposed to the death penalty.

But Wang was not present at the post-meeting press conference, leaving Wong to make a veiled reference to other arrangements having been made for the international media, further highlighting the differences between the two nations.

Controversially, Wang is also set to meet with former Australian Primer Minister Paul Keating, in office in the 1990s and a prominent supporter of China who has criticized Australia's AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal with the US.

Shadow Finance Minister Jane Hume of the federal opposition said it was a sign that Wang was looking to "divide and conquer" and that the government should remain wary of China's motives.

Finally, Wong also confirmed that Chinese pandas were likely to continue to live in Adelaide Zoo in southern Australia, something she said her own children would be very pleased about.

mf/msh (AFP, Reuters)