Chinese President Xi Jinping has told Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese that their countries could become “trusting partners” as the two leaders moved to recalibrate ties strained for years over issues from trade to human rights and the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the first trip to Beijing by an Australian leader since 2016, Albanese met Xi at the Great Hall of the People on Monday.
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The two talked for more than an hour in their second face-to-face talks in a year.
Xi said the two countries had “no fundamental conflict of interests” and could “become mutually trusting and mutually successful partners”, according to a readout of the meeting by state broadcaster CCTV.
Areas for cooperation could include everything from “the peace and stability of the Asia Pacific region” to climate change, the Chinese leader added.
Albanese, who has sought to stabilise ties since taking office last May, said a stronger relationship would be “beneficial into the future” and noted the positive progress made in recent months after Beijing lifted most of its restrictions on Australian goods.
For decades, China and Australia built a relationship on trade, with Beijing becoming Canberra’s biggest commercial partner.
But ties soured after Australia, then under the conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, accused China of meddling in its politics. A national security-related ban on tech giant Huawei and Canberra’s call for an international inquiry into the origin of the COVID pandemic further undermined the relationship.
It is 50 years since Gough Whitlam became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit China.
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. pic.twitter.com/NInb093o3J
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) November 6, 2023
Earlier on Monday, Albanese stopped by Beijing’s iconic Temple of Heaven and posed for a photograph at the circular Echo Wall where Australia’s then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, stood in 1973, a year after the two countries first established diplomatic ties.
He posted a series of photos on X, saying “constant engagement” remained “important”.
“In China, we often say that when drinking water, we should not forget those who dug the well,” Xi said. “The Chinese people will not forget Prime Minister Whitlam for digging the well for us.”
Albanese described Monday’s meeting as “very positive” and said he had invited Xi to visit Australia.
“Both of us certainly agreed that we shouldn’t be defined by our differences, recognise that they are there, but also recognise the mutual benefit that we have,” Albanese said.
Obstacles remain in their relationship, mostly over security issues in the Asia Pacific where Beijing has become increasingly assertive over its claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
Australia is part of the Quad grouping with India, Japan and the United States as well as being a part of AUKUS with the US and the United Kingdom, under which it is expected to benefit from the US’s nuclear submarine technology.
Australia has also raised concerns over Beijing’s growing influence in the Pacific Islands, while Albanese has spoken up on behalf of nations’ right to self-determination as well as human rights and maintaining peace — including in the Taiwan Strait, which separates China from the self-ruled island it regards as part of its own territory.
“AUKUS didn’t come up explicitly. We discussed, though, regional stability,” Albanese said, without going into detail. “I spoke about guardrails and military-to-military cooperation between the United States and China. That’s important.”
Albanese also raised the case of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who has been jailed in Beijing for four years on espionage charges. Beijing last month released Australian journalist Cheng Lei who had been held for three years under the same charges.
Ahead of the meeting, he had acknowledged the need for Australia to remain “clear-eyed” about the differences between the two countries.
“We need to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must, and engage in our national interest,” he told reporters.
Albanese said he would meet Chinese Premier Li Qiang on Tuesday before returning to Australia.