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After years of acrimony, China and Australia cautiously reach out

SYDNEY — Four years after Australia’s ties with China entered a downward spiral, with Australia becoming a forceful counterweight to Beijing’s growing power, the two countries have begun to explore whether they can work out things.

SYDNEY — Four years after Australia’s ties with China entered a downward spiral, with Australia becoming a forceful counterweight to Beijing’s growing power, the two countries have begun to explore whether they can work out things.

Since Australia’s new centre-left government came to power last month, leaders in both countries have signaled they want to ease tensions of recent years. Their disputes over technology, trade barriers, accusations of illicit Chinese influence in Australian politics and each country’s military plans have at times erupted in vitriol.

China’s Ambassador to Australia, Mr Xiao Qian, said on Friday (June 24) that the leadership change in Canberra was an “opportunity for possible improvement in our bilateral relations”.

“There is every reason for China and Australia to be friends and partners, rather than adversaries,” Mr Xiao said in a speech at the University of Technology Sydney. He was repeatedly interrupted by protesters calling on China to end its crackdown in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. “This man should be an outcast,” one shouted.

Later, Mr Xiao said, “The atmosphere in both countries needs to be improved, that’s a fact.

Mr Xiao has used speeches, newspaper comments and private meetings to convey that Beijing wants better relations. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message to new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after his May election victory, and called for “healthy and stable” ties. Chinese and Australian defence ministers met this month at a security forum in Singapore, ending a freeze on ministerial-level meetings since early 2020.

Mr Albanese said he wanted to restore a high-level dialogue with China, his country’s biggest trading partner. But he said Beijing needed to lift trade sanctions against Australia for relations to improve, and indicated he would maintain the generally tougher line on China that took shape under his Conservative predecessors. “There have already been some improvements,” Mr Albanese said recently of ties with China. “But there is a long way to go.”

The Biden administration and governments across Asia are likely to watch closely for concrete signs of rapprochement. Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has boosted Canberra’s ties with Washington and portrayed himself as leading the way in standing up to China. Last year, Mr Morrison signed a defence technology deal with the United States and Britain that could give Australia nuclear-powered submarines.

Mr Albanese and his ministers said they would maintain the agreement and continue to pressure China for its military build-up and activities in the South Pacific. They said they would assert Australia’s right to send navy ships across the South China Sea, where China claims many islands also claimed by Southeast Asian countries.

Since May, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has visited four Pacific island nations to argue that Australia – implicitly not China – should be their “partner of choice”.

“Ultimately, to stabilize bilateral relations, China should be prepared to tolerate a large degree of continuity in Australia’s suite of China-related policies,” said Richard Maude, a former Australian foreign policy official who is now a senior researcher at Asia. Society Policy Institute.

But Australian leaders say even so the tone of relations could improve. After meeting his Chinese counterpart, Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said “this is just a first step”.

“Both sides will likely proceed with caution,” Maude wrote in emailed comments. “Even a less hostile relationship will be inherently volatile and hostage to a number of fundamental differences and disputes.”

Few observers expect relations to return to where they were in 2014, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Australia and, together with then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, declared the conclusion of a free trade pact.

At the time, optimism about the relationship was buoyed by China’s growing appetite for Australian resources, particularly iron ore and coal, as well as wine, wheat and other agricultural products. Chinese officials and media appeared confident that Australia’s economic dependence on their country would reduce tensions.

But Australian leaders have grown increasingly suspicious of China’s influence and intentions. China’s military dominance in the South China Sea has alarmed Canberra and other capitals. In 2018, Australia introduced laws – implicitly targeting the Chinese Communist Party – banning covert political activity on behalf of a foreign government. Australia has become the first Western government to block Huawei and other Chinese telecoms equipment companies from helping build its 5G network.

Relations have cooled even more in recent years. Mr Morrison has called in international investigators – with sweeping powers like ‘weapons inspectors’ – to investigate the origin of the coronavirus, which first spread in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. This proposal infuriated Beijing. Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton has suggested that China behaves abroad like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Chinese officials have denounced Australia’s plans to acquire the nuclear-powered submarines. Since 2020, Beijing has imposed punitive tariffs and informal embargoes on Australian products worth around $16 billion, although it has spared Australian exports of iron ore, essential to Chinese industry.

China’s economic retaliation appeared to have only deepened Australian public and official distrust of the Chinese government.

“Despite the pressure they put on Australia, China has not achieved its goals,” Ms Yun Jiang, a fellow at the Australian Institute of International Affairs who studies China, said in an interview. “They probably wanted to change tactics a bit, and the election was a good time for them to do that.” NEW YORK TIMES

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