Thursday Feb 02, 2023

China’s No.2 surprises Albanese before PM’s first big test

China has ended a block on communicating officially with Australia after Premier Li Keqiang – second to President Xi Jinping – congratulated Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hours after he took office, state media reported.

The olive branch came as Mr Albanese was flying to his first major foreign policy engagement, a regional security summit formed to be a counterweight to China’s influence in the region at w

State news agency Xinhua quoted Premier Li as saying he hoped that this year’s 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties would be an occasion to review relations between the two countries.

“In the 1970s, the Australian Labor Party made the correct choice in establishing diplomatic ties with China, making important contributions to the development of bilateral relations,” Xinhua reported, in comments attributed to the Premier.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang. Photo: Getty

China and Australia have not had official dialogue between top political representatives or economic officials since 2020.

The bilateral relationship reached a low ebb under the previous government.

In November 2019, and months after his election victory, former PM Scott Morrison met Premier Li and promised that China and Australia were committed to ensuring differences did not “overtake or overwhelm the rest of the relationship”.

The Coalition government, though, became progressively more hawkish as China adopted measures designed to apply pressure.

In April and during the election campaign former defence minister Peter Dutton said Australia should “prepare for war” in reference to security concerns about China.

Premier Li’s message came soon after newly sworn in Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Mr Albanese flew to Tokyo for a security summit and bilateral meetings.

Australia joins Japan, India and America in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a bloc designed to be a counterweight to Chinese dominance in our region and one of the country’s most important strategic alliances.

Shortly before taking off Mr Albanese addressed the issue of the state of relations with China directly suggesting Labor would not actively seek to reshape relations since Beijing cut them off three years ago.

“The relationship with China will remain a difficult one,” he said.

“That has not changed; it is China that has changed.”

The Premier’s message offers a foreign policy opportunity but also complicates Mr Albanese’s first international summit as Prime Minister which commentators had framed as a test of his credentials on defence and security.

Beijing denounces the very concept of the Quad as a tool for supporting American imperialism.

In February Quad foreign ministers pledged to enforce freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas, areas which Beijing treats as part of its sovereign territory.

And this week bilateral meetings have covered ground even less likely to be met well by Beijing.

Asked in Tokyo if America would use force to defend Taiwan in the event of a military conflict, President Joe Biden seemed to dispense with a policy of deliberate ambiguity designed to avoid ratcheting up tensions.

“Yes,” the President said. “It’s a commitment.”

Mr Albanese has stressed that America will remain Australia’s most important alliance.

But the Labor leader has said he wants to avoid politicisation of the relationship and used a phrase employed by President Biden to summarise the ideal diplomatic approach to China: “competition without catastrophe”.

Initiatives reportedly set to be passed by the Quad this week also mirror elements of Labor’s Pacific foreign policy announced at the election: Taking action on illegal and unregulated fishing, and greater initiative on climate change in the region.

The Chinese Premier this week announced a strategy of making the country more open to the world and foreign investment, another state newspaper, the Global Times, reported.

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