Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese began the first leg of his historic visit to China, a four-day tour that heralds an improvement in ties between the two nations.
Albanese, making the first visit by Australian leader in seven years, attended the China International Import Expo in Shanghai on Sunday to promote Australian produce and businesses. The visit is of special significance given China’s recent removal of trade curbs on Australian barley, coal, and timber, as well as Canberra’s hopes for resuming exports of wine and lobsters.
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“We know that constructive economic engagement between countries helps to build relationships and helps to build understanding, both on common interests and where there are differences,” Albanese said at the Expo. Australia will “continue to work constructively with China as “it is in all our interests to have a relationship where there is dialogue and cooperation,” he said.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than a quarter of two-way trade. Canberra’s delicate diplomatic balance between its economic interests in China and its seven-decade security alliance with the US means the prime minister’s visit will be closely watched by all sides.
Albanese will travel to Beijing next where he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. His visit marks 50 years since Australia opened its embassy in China’s capital and the anniversary of his Labor predecessor Gough Whitlam becoming the first Australian prime minister to visit the People’s Republic.
Albanese’s visit follows an extended period of frosty diplomatic ties between Canberra and Beijing. The rift was triggered by Australia’s decision to ban Huawei Technologies Co. from its 5G networks as China turned more assertive on the international stage.
It worsened further when former prime minister Scott Morrison called in 2020 for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. That prompted a furious Beijing to impose trade sanctions on some Australian exports to the Chinese market.
Relations between Australia and China have rapidly improved since Albanese’s center-left Labor government won power in May 2022. High-level ministerial meetings resumed and some trade imposts were removed.
In one of the most significant signs of warmer ties, Australian journalist Cheng Lei was released from custody in China in October and allowed to return home. However, writer and Australian citizen Yang Hengjun remains in detention after being taken into custody by Chinese authorities more than four years ago.
Albanese has pledged to raise his case at the highest levels during the visit.
“We must cooperate with China where we can, we will disagree where we must, but we will also engage in our national interest,” he said late Saturday after arriving in Shanghai.
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