Chinese premier heads to Perth amid thawing tensions

Strengthening business links and critical minerals will be top of the agenda for the final day of Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia.

Jun 18, 2024, updated Jun 18, 2024
Chinese Premier Li Qiang during the Annual Leaders’ Meeting at Parliament House in Canberra. LUKAS COCH/Pool via REUTERS

Chinese Premier Li Qiang during the Annual Leaders’ Meeting at Parliament House in Canberra. LUKAS COCH/Pool via REUTERS

Fresh from high-level talks at Parliament House with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, China’s second-highest official travelled to Western Australia ahead of meetings with business and community leaders on Tuesday.

The trip to Perth will see Mr Li visit a lithium plant before attending an Australia-China CEO roundtable event.

The roundtable will involve representatives from major Australian companies including Wesfarmers, Rio Tinto, ANZ and Fortescue meeting to discuss economic opportunity and free-trade agreements between the two countries.

Li will also visit Fortescue’s research and development facility in Perth.

The visit by Li to Australia, the first by a Chinese premier in seven years, had restored hope of China lifting all remaining trade sanctions that had been imposed since 2020.

While sanctions had been lifted on items such as beef and wine, trade restrictions remain on Australian rock lobster.

Chief executive of the University of Melbourne’s Asialink Business, Leigh Howard, said China had come to the realisation its trade bans hurt its own consumers and businesses as well as Australia.

Howard said while the visit from Li signalled the relationship between Australia and China was entering a new phase, questions remained.

“The leaders on both sides are signalling to businesses that they have a licence to engage,” Howard said.

“With the relationship stabilising, the key question now is how this translates into action for significant and growing sectors such as the green economy, energy transition, digitalisation and the information economy.

“These sectors hold considerable potential. However, they also come with considerations related to national interests and security, including the security of supply chains and broader security concerns.”

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Albanese said Australia’s approach to revitalising relations with China after several frosty years had been measured.

“Our approach has, of course, been patient, calibrated and deliberate,” he said.

“The recommencement of our regular annual leaders’ meeting has restored the high-level dialogue which is central to this stabilisation.”

The prime minister, who will also be in Perth alongside the premier on Tuesday, said the pair had constructive talks during formal discussions in Canberra, with the leaders having signed four memoranda of understanding in areas such as climate change, research and education.

China had also included Australia as part of its visa-waiver program, which would allow tourists visa-free entry into China for up to 15 days.

Ahead of the CEO roundtable, Business Council of Australia chief executive Bran Black said it would be critical for both countries to work closer together.

“China is our largest two-way trading partner with total trade last year standing at $320 billion, and that figure is only set to grow as demand increases for investments linked to the energy transition,” he said.

“One in four jobs in Australia is linked to the export market, so roundtables like these help support those jobs and growing critical sectors.”

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