In a bid to mend strained ties between Australia and China, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese retraced the historic footsteps of the first Australian leader to visit China. His visit comes after several years of tensions between the two trading partners, including issues related to security concerns and the origin of COVID-19, which led to Chinese blockades on Australian products like wine, barley, and beef.
Albanese's visit to Beijing, the first by an Australian leader since 2016, holds the promise of reinvigorating the economic relationship between the two nations. His itinerary included a visit to the Temple of Heaven, where he posed for a photograph at the Echo Wall, the same spot where Australia's then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, stood in 1973, marking a pivotal moment in the establishment of diplomatic ties between Australia and China.
"Since he visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing much has changed. But what is constant is that engagement between our two countries remains important," Albanese stated in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The relationship between China and Australia has traditionally been centered around trade, with China being Australia's largest trading partner, primarily due to its substantial purchases of Australian food and natural resources. However, tensions began to escalate when Australia accused China of interfering in its domestic politics in 2017. Matters worsened the following year when Australia banned Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co from participating in its 5G network due to national security concerns.
The situation deteriorated further in 2020 when Australia called for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which infuriated Beijing and resulted in trade restrictions on various Australian imports. China also cautioned its students against studying in Australia, citing incidents of racism, posing a threat to the multi-billion-dollar education market.
However, Prime Minister Albanese has taken significant steps to stabilize relations since assuming office in May of the previous year. He met President Xi Jinping for the second time in a year, engaging in face-to-face talks during his visit to Beijing. This diplomatic engagement bore fruit as China began lowering trade barriers, allowing imports of Australian coal in January and ending tariffs on barley in August. Additionally, last month, Beijing agreed to review the steep dumping tariffs of 218% imposed on Australian wine.
"I think there are promising signs," Albanese told reporters. "We've already seen a number of the impediments to trade between our two nations removed and a substantial uplift in the trade between our two nations, with issues like barley already restarting."
Chinese customs data reveals that China's imports from Australia from January to September increased by 8.1% compared to the previous year, totaling $116.9 billion. This positive trend comes after a 12.7% decline in imports in 2022, which amounted to $142.1 billion.
However, challenges persist, as China's growing influence in Pacific Island nations has raised concerns in Australia. Furthermore, Australia's security alliance with the United States and Britain in the Indo-Pacific has led to apprehensions in Beijing about containment. Australia's support for a U.N. ruling rejecting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea has also fueled tensions, with China asserting that the issue does not concern Australia.
Australia emphasizes the strategic importance of the South China Sea as a critical passageway for its trade with Japan and South Korea. Prime Minister Albanese's approach is clear: "What I've said is that we need to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must, and engage in our national interest.