Australia’s foreign minister hints at lifting sanctions during China visit

by Hiten Ghosh
Australia China

Minister Penny Wong’s visit raised hopes of progress on issues ranging from trade sanctions to Australians in detention.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s first visit to China will discuss the removal of trade restrictions imposed by Australia and the release of two Australian citizens imprisoned in China, he said.

But Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has also said that some issues between the two countries will take time to be resolved. Diplomatic experts have hailed the visit as a positive step after years of frosty relations.

Wong will meet with his counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing this week to mark 50 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and China. After the suspension of talks in 2018, a new round of talks with foreign and strategic issues is about to take place

“There’s been a lot of speculation in the last few days about what’s going to happen,” Wong told reporters. “I say this: the expectation should be that we will have a meeting, and that dialogue itself is the main need now to stabilize the relationship. It will take time to resolve the many difficult problems in the relationship in our interests.”

She said it would be difficult to make any predictions about the outcome because it would also affect Australia’s leverage in the negotiations.

“Regarding consular issues, to save you from asking questions, obviously I will raise consular issues, as I always do, as I will continue to advocate for the removal of trade barriers,” Wong explained.

Australia is pushing for the release of spy novelist Yang Hengjun, whom China accuses of espionage, and journalist Cheng Lei, whom China accuses of sharing state secrets.

China does not recognize dual citizenship and Chinese-born defendants like Yang and Cheng are often not treated the same as other foreign nationals, especially when facing espionage charges.

Wong’s trip signals a continuing thaw in relations between the two nations after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese won an election in May, replacing the more conservative Scott Morrison in the top role.

The Albanians and Chinese President Xi Jinping met last month on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summits in Bali, the first formal meeting between the two nations’ leaders in six years.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said that China hopes that this visit will further speed up the pace of improving relations established at the Bali Summit. Mao said at this week’s daily briefing that China hopes the two countries will put bilateral relations on the right track and achieve sustainable development.

Relations between Australia and China have been strained for years after China imposed trade barriers and denied high-level exchanges in response to Australia’s introduction of rules targeting foreign interference in its domestic politics and calls for an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Xu, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute think tank, said the resumption of diplomatic talks was welcome. “The wheels are starting to turn on a lot of issues related to Australia and China,” she said.

“If this effort turns out to be a success, but these things take time,” Xu said.

He noted that China could reap some economic benefits from easing its trade restrictions on Australian goods.

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