Beijing has lifted trade sanctions on Australian timber imports and revealed advanced plans to have Anthony Albanese visit “as early as possible”, in what would be the first trip by a prime minister to China in seven years.
The revelation means Mr Albanese could visit both the United States and China later this year, after US President Joe Biden on Wednesday offered the Prime Minister a rare state visit to Washington DC after cancelling his trip to Papua New Guinea and Australia next week.
A day after Mr Biden prompted concerns about the US’ regional influence by cancelling next week’s trip to deal with the debt ceiling crisis at home, China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian stepped up to announce a further thawing of the bilateral relationship with Canberra.
China’s move also came as G7 leaders made their way to Hiroshima, Japan for their annual summit. Mr Biden, who arrived in Japan on Thursday night (AEST) left the US vowing to return on Sunday and sort out the crisis that has paralysed the Congress and raised fears on markets the US may begin to default on some if its debts from June 1.
“We will not default,” Mr Biden said before leaving.
In a rare press conference in Canberra, Mr Xiao revealed China had already lifted a $1.6 billion ban on timber imports, part of the $20 billion in coercive trade sanctions made by Beijing as the relationship deteriorated in response to investment and security sanctions imposed by Australia.
“Yesterday, the Chinese Customs have formally notified the Australian minister of agriculture that starting from today China will resume import of Australian timbers,” he said.
“They have satisfied the conditions of the Chinese Customs.”
The move surprised the Australian government which had not been expecting such a rapid response on the back of last week’s trip to China by Trade Minister Don Farrell to push for the lifting of trade sanctions.
Senator Farrell welcomed the timber decision but urged China to keep going and lift the other sanctions which still affect products ranging from wine and barley, to lobster.
“There is still an awful lot more work to do. There is still a range of other products that we want impediments lifted,” he said.
He said he left China in the belief a decision on barley would be next.
“I was assured when I was in China last week that their process of reviewing the barley tariffs was well under way, and we should expect a decision in the next few weeks.
“We look forward to the full resumption of trade for all affected products as soon as possible.”
PM to visit Beijing
Mr Xiao also revealed Australian and Chinese diplomats have been working behind the scenes on a visit to Beijing by Mr Albanese.
Mr Xiao said plans were afoot for the visit to be held “at a time of mutual convenience” which, he hoped, would be “as early as possible”. Speculation abounds of a trip around October 31, the same date Labor icon Gough Whitlam made his landmark visit to Beijing in 1973.
The last prime minister to visit China was Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 for the G20 summit at which he had a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping.
After that, the relationship was frozen but has begun to thaw under the Labor government.
Mr Albanese met Mr Xi on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali last year, and since then, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Senator Farrell have visited China.
In March, Mr Albanese told The Australian Financial Review Business Summit he would go to China if asked.
“If there is an invite, I would accept that,” he said.
“It has been a good thing that the relationship has got more stable. We want a more stable, secure region.”
Quad a ‘bad idea’: Chinese ambassador
Although foreign policy boffins warned Mr Biden’s cancelled visits to PNG, to sign a defence agreement, and then to Australia for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, would be a PR coup for China, Mr Xiao declined to comment specifically.
He did, however, urge Australia to not allow its membership of the Quad to affect relations with China. He said the Quad, an annual security dialogue between Australia, the US, Japan and India was a “bad idea”.
“It’s even a worse idea when we are trying to target China,” he said.
“We want to have a relationship that is co-operative, that is not confrontational. We don’t see conflict.”
He also said Australia’s military build-up under the AUKUS pact and the recently released defence strategic review was “absolutely unnecessary” because China posed no threat to Australia.
Mr Albanese and India’s Narendra Modi will be guests at the G7, enabling a hastily reconvened Quad to be held on the sidelines.
G7 ‘targeting China’
Mr Xiao also took aim at the G7, accusing it of misleading the world about China’s intentions in the Indo-Pacific.
“They are not only targeting China as a so-called threat but also trying to co-ordinate with other countries in the region and globally to contain China,” the ambassador told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
“Their people have been enjoying top-level living standards for several decades. They want to continue that, and it’s good for them but for countries like China or other developing countries, we want to make progress.”
Speaking from the Filipino capital of Manila, Senator Wong, who has spearheaded efforts to stabilise the relationship with Beijing, said she was given a heads-up on the timber decision on Wednesday night.
“We see stabilising the relationship as encompassing co-operation where we can, disagreement where we must and continued engagement,” she said.
“We see stabilising as managing our differences wisely and that means both countries manage their differences wisely. We have engaged with our counterparts at foreign minister level, at leader level and at trade minister level.
“We have made clear that we hope that there is the removal of trade impediments that have been imposed in this relationship.
“We have made it clear to China that we think it is in both country’s interests for those trade impediments to be removed.”
Source : Financial Review