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Australia’s Albanese heads to China touting ‘consistent, steady’ engagement

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will travel to Beijing on Saturday, a little over 50 years since his predecessor Gough Whitlam’s historic journey to China.

But while Albanese may be following in the steps of Whitlam, who forged ties with China in 1972, he was careful first to travel to the United States, Australia’s so-called “forever friend”.

Albanese confirmed the exact dates of his long-planned China visit – November 4 to 7 – just hours before he got on the plane to Washington, DC, and also announced some policy initiatives – including for Australian wine growers – indicating a potential thawing of Australia’s relationship with Beijing.

“Consistent, steady engagement with our international partners gets results for Australia,” the prime minister wrote on X last week.

At the White House, Albanese and his partner enjoyed a lavish state dinner, amid Canberra’s deepening security ties with the US, and initiatives such as the Quad and the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal that have caused upset in Beijing.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his partner Jodie Haydon at the White House. They're wearing evening dress.
Biden hosted a lavish state dinner for Albanese and his partner at the White House [File: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo]

Emma Shortis, a senior researcher in International and Security Affairs at the Australia Institute told Al Jazeera that Albanese’s government was “very clearly … doubling down on the US alliance” while also being “intent” on “stabilising the relationship with China and particularly the trade relationship.”

China is Australia’s largest trading partner.

“That’s an incredibly difficult line to walk and I think we’ll just need to wait and see how they handle it,” Shortis said.

Albanese’s China visit – the first by an Australian leader in seven years – comes after a bridge-building trip by Foreign Minister Penny Wong in December 2022.

One group that will be banking on his diplomatic skills will be Australian wine growers.

Matthew Rimmer, Professor of Intellectual Property and Innovation Law, at the Queensland University of Technology, noted that with the dispute over wine tariffs now suspended at the World Trade Organization, there was a chance of progress.

“Perhaps this dispute can be resolved altogether during the visit,” he told Al Jazeera.

China was once the biggest buyer of Australian wine and Beijing’s imposition of duties in 2020 has left vineyards with a massive oversupply.

But Rimmer notes, trade negotiations will not be clear-cut given the complexity of the two countries’ relationship.

Australian intelligence agencies have raised “concerns that China has been targeting the confidential information and trade secrets of Australian research institutions,” he said. “No doubt intellectual property and trade will be a touchy subject.”

‘Starting point’

Albanese came to power in 2022 amid hopes for a reset of Chinese relations, which under the conservative government of predecessor Scott Morrison had deteriorated over a range of issues from trade disputes, to COVID-19, accusations of political interference and spying, as well as human rights.

The return of Australian journalist Cheng Lei to Australia earlier this month after three years in Chinese detention has helped raise hopes for a potential thawing of the bilateral relationship.

Still, Kevin Yam, a Hong Kong lawyer and democracy activist now living in Australia, told Al Jazeera while Albanese’s visit could be a good “starting point”, it is also important for Albanese to “raise things and push for things that need to be pushed for”.

Yam is one of the eight Hong Kong exiles “wanted” by Hong Kong police after Beijing imposed a National Security Law in 2020 that Amnesty has said has “decimated” the territory’s freedoms.

He points out there are also two other Australians – democracy blogger Yang Hengjun and Hong Kong democracy activist Gordon Ng – whose cases “should be vigorously raised at any meetings with the Chinese authorities”.

On Wednesday, Albanese confirmed he would use his visit to raise the case of Yang, who has been detained in China since 2019.

Yam hopes the Australian leader will also raise the case of Ng, a democracy activist from Sydney “languishing in a Hong Kong jail for his role in the democracy movement in Hong Kong”.

Speaking in relation to Hong Kong specifically, Yam noted that 100,000 Australians are living in the Chinese territory, meaning that it was in “Australia’s national interest” for the “freedoms that Hong Kong has enjoyed” to return.

Meanwhile, Albanese also quietly raised the case of one other Australian journalist languishing in prison overseas – Julian Assange – during his visit to Washington, DC.

Shortis says this was probably due to increasing pressure from supporters of Assange, including a growing number of representatives in the Australian parliament who are vocally advocating for his freedom.

Assange is currently in prison in the United Kingdom pending extradition to the US where he is wanted on criminal charges over the release of confidential military records and diplomatic cables in 2010.

“People should be asking questions about why Assange isn’t being allowed to come home when we are supposedly the United States’ best friend in the world,” said Shortis.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong meets Australian journalist Cheng Lei on arrival at Melbourne Airport in Melbourne, October 11, 2023. AAP Image/Supplied by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. AUSTRALIA OUT. NEW ZEALAND OUT
Cheng Lei, right, was held in China for three years before she was eventually released [File: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AAP via Reuters]

It is a contrast to Australia’s relationship with Beijing where Yam notes there are “a lot of differences” between the two sides.

Still, despite also having his own personal differences with the China government, Yam sees the visit to China as a “good thing” as long as Albanese raises issues beyond “trade impediments” and “[holds] firm on our bottom lines”.

Albanese will arrive in China a few weeks after Xi hosted Russian President Putin and other world leaders for the Belt and Road (BRI) forum.

While China has been “industriously pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative,” Australia has, to date, been “reluctant to join”, said Rimmer.

The Australian state of Victoria, then under the leadership of another Labor government, had signed a preliminary agreement to join the initiative in 2018, but it was vetoed by Morrison’s government amid concerns about overseas deals that were said to be “inconsistent” with Australia’s foreign policy.

The decision came at a time when ties between Beijing and Canberra were at an all-time low.

But even as Australia seeks to mend fences, it is moving carefully.

Biden and Albanese share a toast at the state dinner in Washington, DC. They are wearing evening dress. The room is bathed in a blue light.
Albanese and Biden share a toast during last month’s state visit [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

With China extending its influence in the Pacific, the Albanese government has been renewing ties with countries there.

As the BRI forum took place in Beijing, Canberra hosted Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, while Rabuka’s deputy went to China.

Australia also took the opportunity to announce a new pathway to permanent residency for citizens of Pacific Island countries and East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, a policy that Pacific Island countries have long been calling for amid the climate crisis.

Whitlam’s visit to China was a notable first among Western leaders.

Decades on, Albanese is seeking not to make waves but to calm the sometimes choppy seas.

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