Top Australia diplomat makes first trip to China in four years

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Australia’s top diplomat will visit China on Tuesday, the first such trip by an Australian foreign minister in four years and a sign of further thawing ties.

Canberra said Penny Wong will visit Beijing to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations and meet Chinese state councilor and minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi.

“Australia seeks a stable relationship with China; we will cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said announcing the visit.

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The last official visit to Beijing by an Australian foreign minister was in 2018. Since then, once-excellent relations have nosedived.

The two countries have sparred over political and moral issues -- notably Chinese influence operations overseas; widespread rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet; and America’s role in the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s Communist leaders were incensed by Australia’s decision to effectively ban state-sanctioned firm Huawei from operating the country’s 5G network, and by calls from Canberra to investigate the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In retaliation, China quietly slapped sanctions on a range of Australian goods and instituted a freeze on high-level contacts. The frosty relations only ended when Albanese met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali in November.

But the economic sanctions remain, and while Australia has made clear it would like to see them lifted, experts are doubtful that ties will improve quickly or dramatically.

Canberra has embarked on wide-ranging military reforms to better deter threats from overseas -- including acquiring and developing long-range nuclear-powered submarines and strike capabilities that could hurt a much more powerful enemy if needed.

Although rarely stated explicitly, the shift has almost entirely been driven by China’s rapid military growth and more assertive posture overseas under President Xi.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australia still provides many of the ores, metals and minerals that fuel China’s spectacular economic growth.

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