Australia’s Albanese and China’s Li hold ‘candid’ talks in Canberra

Premier Li Qiang is the most senior Chinese leader to visit Australia since 2017.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has welcomed Chinese Premier Li Qiang to the Australian Parliament in Canberra for high-level talks that both sides described as candid.

Li’s four-day visit, the first by a Chinese premier in seven years, comes after Beijing removed sweeping tariffs on major Australian exports, including wine, coal and barley.

Speaking at a news conference after the discussions, Albanese said he had raised concerns about human rights in China, the situation in the Pacific and the Russia-Ukraine war.

“We … have our differences … that’s why candid dialogue is so important,” Albanese said. “For Australia, we consistently advocate the importance of a region and world that is peaceful, stable and prosperous, where countries respect sovereignty and abide by international laws.”

Li said they had held a “candid, in-depth and fruitful meeting and reached a lot of consensus”. He also announced that Australia would join China’s visa waiver programme.

Outside the parliament building, human rights protesters chanted slogans and waved flags and placards in support of Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

A gun salute at parliament in Canberra. Tere is a large cloud of smoke and flame.
A gun salute for China’s Premier Li Qiang outside Parliament House in Canberra [Lukas Coch/Pool via AFP]

There was a heavy police presence and a barricade had been erected to separate them from a pro-China group waving the country’s flag.

Reporters on the ground said the mood was tense and there were a few scuffles.

Li was welcomed by a brass band as he inspected a military guard of honour in front of Parliament House, and a 19-gun artillery salute briefly drowned out the noisy crowds. At a state lunch with more than 300 guests, he was served a menu including Australian beef and wines grown in the Canberra region, according to public service broadcaster ABC.

Jailed writer

Li, who arrived on Sunday, has used the trip to highlight trade, friendship and China’s love for Australian products.

But Albanese had promised to broach more sensitive topics before their closed-door meeting, including the plight of jailed dissident writer Yang Hengjun.

The China-born Australian writer was given a suspended death sentence in February after being found guilty of spying. The sentence was upheld by a Beijing court in the run-up to Li’s visit, Yang’s supporters said on Sunday.

They urged Albanese to ask Li to allow Yang’s transfer to Australia on medical grounds, saying in a statement it was “not possible to achieve a stable, respectful bilateral relationship with China while their officials are threatening to execute an Australian political prisoner”.

Australia has also criticised China’s military in recent months for its “unacceptable” and “unsafe” behaviour in international skies and waters, and has called for restraint in the disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.

Australia has also joined the Quad security grouping with India, Japan and the United States, as well as the AUKUS pact with the United Kingdom and the US.

Protesters call on China to 'close the camps' in reference to Xinjiang where the UN has said at least one million mostly Muslim Uighurs have been detained in re-education centres
Protesters gathered before Li’s visit to Adelaide Zoo on Sunday [Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Pool via AP]

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in a radio interview on Monday that such partnerships were to “ensure we have a safer and more stable region” but stressed that the need for continued engagement with China, which has framed the pacts as an attempt to contain it.

University of Sydney researcher Minglu Chen said Australia would be careful to smooth over public criticisms of its largest trading partner.

“I don’t know if all the problems on the security side will just disappear overnight,” she told the AFP news agency. “But I think this visit still has a symbolic meaning. Which is sending a good gesture, and for China to show the outside world it is still willing to embrace foreign countries.”

On his arrival on Sunday, Li said the relationship was “back on track” as he enjoyed lunch at a historic vineyard in South Australia state that had been badly affected by the trade embargo.

He also announced two new pandas would be sent to Adelaide Zoo to replace a pair that are due to return to China by the end of the year.

China buys a third of Australia’s exports and supplies a quarter of Australia’s imports.

Trade between Australia and China reached 327 billion Australian dollars ($215.95bn) last year as Beijing’s trade blocks eased.

Relations deteriorated over Australian legislation that banned covert foreign interference in Australian politics, the exclusion of Chinese-owned telecommunications giant Huawei from Australia’s national 5G network due to security concerns, and Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the causes of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies