CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – China’s ambassador to Australia says relations between the two countries are at a “new juncture” with the election of a new Australian government and the first minister-to-minister talks in more than two years .
Ambassador Xiao Qian gave an optimistic assessment of the potential of the bilateral relationship in a weekend speech at the Australia-China Friendship Society in the west coast city of Perth. The speech was published on the embassy’s website on Monday.
“The international, political and economic landscape is undergoing profound and complex changes. China-Australia relations are at a new juncture and face many opportunities,” Xiao said.
“My Embassy and the Chinese Consulates-General in Australia stand ready to work with the Australian federal government, state governments and friends from all walks of life to advance China-Australia relations on the right path for the benefit of our two countries and two peoples,” added Xiao.
Xiao’s speech on Saturday came a day before Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe’s hour-long meeting with his Australian counterpart Richard Marles on the sidelines of a regional security summit in Singapore.
Marles described the meeting as a “crucial first step” in restoring bilateral ties. But observers are reluctant to describe the meeting as the thawing of a diplomatic freezer between the countries.
Dennis Richardson, a former head of defense, foreign affairs and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization spy agency, and a former Australian ambassador to the United States, noted that both governments seized their first opportunity for ministerial contact since Australia’s change of government in May’s general election would have 21
Bilateral relations had deteriorated in the nine years that a conservative coalition was in power.
“The fact that they agreed to speak at the very first opportunity is remarkable,” Richardson told Australian Broadcasting Corp on Monday.
“I don’t think we should push too far in that regard. We still have a long way to go,” added Richardson.
Malcolm Davis, a senior defense strategy and capability analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, warned against exaggerating the importance of the meeting.
“They had an hour-long meeting where they openly and fully shared their respective views. This is not tantamount to restoring the status quo ante of the Australian relationship as it was prior to 2015 when the relationship was reasonably good,” Davis said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang wrote to congratulate Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese days after his election victory in a gesture seen by some as China trying to reshape the relationship.
Albanese responded by urging China to show goodwill by lifting a series of official and unofficial trade barriers put in place on a range of billions of dollars’ worth of Australian exports in recent years, including coal, wine, barley, beef and seafood.
Bates Gill, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Macquarie University, suggested Beijing would not back down on trade sanctions.
“It would have to come at a price if Australia agrees to the Chinese demands. I just don’t think politics will allow that right now,” Gil said.
Bilateral relations plunged to new depths at the start of the pandemic, as Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origins of and responses to COVID-19.
China’s newest ambassador to Australia has adopted a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor, Cheng Jingye, since arriving in Canberra in January.
Cheng warned of Chinese trade boycotts in 2020 if Australia sticks with its demand for a COVID-19 investigation.