The Foreign Minister’s upcoming trip to China is an “opportunity” to repair the country’s relationship with Australia after years of harsh treatment, according to her Opposition counterpart.
Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said the visit was a “test” of whether Penny Wong will be able to salvage the relationship after China resumed ministerial talks.
Senator Wong will be the first government minister to travel to Beijing in three years for a bilatera meeting with a Chinese counterpart.
The event will mark the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s historic trip to China. Mr Whitlam visited China when he was Opposition leader in 1971. He was one of the first western leaders to do so.
Mr Birmingham singled out trade sanctions and the detention of Australians, such as Cheng Lei, as examples of the “difficult things in the relationship” between the two countries.
“As we’re seeing this settle into more of a pattern of discussion and dialogue, the test will be whether we see progress in the removal of those unfair trade sanctions and whether we see progress in the release of detained Australians and indeed, progress on sensitive regional issues, such as ensuring peace and security within our region and of course, issues of human rights concerns within China, too,” Mr Birmingham said on Sky News.
China’s State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, will welcome Senator Wong to Beijing and host the sixth Australia-China Foreign and Strategic Dialogue – an event last held in 2018.
Mr Birmingham welcomed the shift in China’s approach to other countries, noting China seemed to be moving away from “wolf warrior diplomacy” – the assertive Chinese approach rolled out under Xi Jinping.
“The more aggressive stance of Chinese diplomats was not just something we saw in Australia, but in many other parts of the world,” he said.
“There seems to be a change in tone at present from China in terms of their international engagement.”
The trip comes after a meeting between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which represented the start of a thawing of the icy relationship.
The bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali was the first of its kind between leaders of the two countries in six years.
“Australia seeks a stable relationship with China; we will co-operate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest,” Mr Albanese said about the upcoming trip.
Mr Birmingham defended the Coalition’s hard-line stance on China as difficult decisions which were made “in the national interest”.
The previous government faced criticism for its more combative approach to China, including former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “instant and angry” reaction to a tweet from an account linked to the Chinese government criticising Australian Diggers.
“They were, of course, always going to cause some frictions in the relationship and we saw that,” Mr Birmingham said.
“And then the real deterioration by virtue of the fact that China’s response was to apply attempted economic coercion, frankly, in terms of the types of unfair, unwarranted and unjustified trade sanctions applied against Australian industry and businesses, which were of deep concern and created a heightening in relation to the tensions and the dialogue at the time.”
“I’m pleased to see that there is some settling of that.”