BEIJING (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on Monday as he followed in the footsteps of the first Australian leader to visit China, retracing a path he took five decades ago when relations were strengthened were tied.
Albanese, the first visit by an Australian leader since 2016, hopes his visit will improve relations between the trading partners after tensions in recent years over issues ranging from security concerns to the origins of COVID-19 to Chinese blockades on Australian products such as wine , barley etc. had beef.
Albanese, who arrived on Saturday, was scheduled to meet President Xi Jinping later on Monday, their second face-to-face meeting in a year.
At the Temple of Heaven, Albanese posed for a photo at the circular Echo Wall, the same spot where then-Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam stood in 1973, a year after the two countries established relations.
“A lot has changed since he visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. But what is consistent is that engagement between our two countries remains important,” Albanese said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
China and Australia developed trade relationships for decades, with China becoming Australia’s largest trading partner through the purchase of Australian food and natural resources.
But relations soured after Australia accused China of interfering in its politics in 2017. The following year, Australia banned equipment from Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co from its 5G network on national security grounds.
An Australian call in 2020 for an international investigation into the origins of the COVID pandemic that erupted in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 angered Beijing, which responded by blocking various Australian imports.
As relations soured, China warned its students against studying in Australia, citing racist incidents that threatened a multi-billion dollar education market.
But Albanese took steps to stabilize relations after becoming prime minister in May last year and meeting Xi on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Indonesia in November.
China soon began reducing trade barriers, allowing coal imports in January and ending tariffs on barley in August. Last month, Beijing agreed to a review of 218% dumping tariffs on Australian wine.
“I think there are promising signs,” Albanese told reporters.
“We have already seen that a number of barriers to trade between our two countries have been removed and trade between our two countries has already experienced a significant boost, for example in barley, which has already started again.”
China’s imports from Australia rose 8.1% year-on-year to $116.9 billion in January-September, Chinese customs data showed. In 2022, imports fell 12.7% to $142.1 billion.
But obstacles remain as Beijing’s power projection among Pacific island nations worries Australia, while its security alliance with the United States and Britain in the Indo-Pacific has stoked China’s concerns about containment.
Australia’s support for a UN ruling rejecting China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea has also angered China, which has told Australia the issue is not its concern.
Australia says the South China Sea is an important passage for its trade with Japan and South Korea.
“What I have said is that we must work with China where we can, disagree where we must, and stand up for our national interests,” Albanese said.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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