Australia's Albanese retraces historic Beijing walk on visit to mend ties

6th November 2023 By: Reuters

Australia's Albanese retraces historic Beijing walk on visit to mend ties

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
Photo by: Anthony Albanese via X

BEIJING - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stopped by Beijing's Temple of Heaven on Monday as he followed in the footsteps of the first Australian leader to visit China, retracing a walk made five decades ago as ties were being established.

Albanese, the first by an Australian leader since 2016, hopes to mend relations between the trading partners with his visit after tensions in recent years over issues from security worries to the origin of Covid-19 triggered Chinese blocks on Australian products including wine, barley and beef.

Albanese, who arrived on Saturday, was due to meet President Xi Jinping later on Monday, their second face-to-face talks in a year.

At the Temple of Heaven, Albanese posed for a photograph at the circular Echo Wall, the same spot where Australia's then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, stood in 1973, a year after the two countries established ties.

"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 said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

China and Australia for decades built a relationship on trade, with China becoming Australia's biggest trading partner with its purchases of Australian food and natural resources.

But ties soured after Australia in 2017 accused China of meddling in its politics. The following year, Australia banned equipment from Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies for its 5G network on national security fears.

An Australian call in 2020 for an international inquiry into the origin of the Covid pandemic, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, infuriated Beijing, which responded with blocks on various Australian imports.

As relations deteriorated, China warned its students against studying in Australia, citing racists incidents, threatening a multi-billion-dollar education market.

But Albanese took steps to stabilise relations after he became prime minister in May last year and met Xi on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Indonesia in November.

China soon began lowering trade barriers, allowing imports of coal in January and ending tariffs on barley in August. Last month, Beijing agreed to review dumping tariffs of 218% 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 an uplift already, substantial uplift, in the trade between our two nations in issues like barley already restarting."

China's January-September imports from Australia increased 8.1% from a year earlier to $116.9-billion, Chinese customs data show. In 2022, imports plunged 12.7% to $142.1-billion.

But obstacles remain with Beijing's projection of power among Pacific island nations alarming Australia, while its security alliance with the United States and Britain in the Indo-Pacific has stoked China's worries about containment.

Australia's backing of a UN ruling rejecting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea has also angered China, which has told Australia the issue is not its concern.

Australia says the South China Sea is an important passageway for its trade with Japan and South Korea.

"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," Albanese said.