Li Qiang’s Australia Trip Signals Improved China-Australia Ties

Li Qiang - Anthony Albanese

Chinese Premier Li Qiang is set to visit Australia from June 15 to 18, marking the first visit by a Chinese premier in seven years. This significant diplomatic event signals a further thaw in the once-frosty relations between the two countries.

The premier leads the State Council and is ranked second in the seven-member governing Politburo, only outranked by President Xi Jinping. Similar to how Australia’s Prime Minister and Governor-General both engage in international diplomacy, both Li and Xi conduct international visits. In recent months, Premier Li has attended the G20, World Economic Forum, and a trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea. His predecessor, Li Keqiang, last visited Australia in 2017.

An official visit at this level demands utmost diplomatic niceties. Formally, it reciprocates the visit that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made to China late last year. In Canberra, Premier Li will be welcomed with a full ceremonial display, including a military display and a visit to Governor-General David Hurley, highlighting the protocol and symbolism due to such an official visit.

Politically, Premier Li will co-chair the ninth China-Australia Annual Leaders’ Meeting. This follows a tradition of high-level Chinese engagement with Australia, such as President Xi Jinping’s address to the Australian parliament in 2014. Xi famously visited all Australian states, humorously noting he should “get a certificate for that” following his visit to Tasmania.

Premier Li will also visit Adelaide, where he will likely engage with relieved wine exporters and visit the pandas at the Adelaide Zoo, and Perth, for trade promotion and a visit to the Chinese community, before heading to Malaysia.

Business and Economic Interests

Much like Australian leaders, Chinese leaders use international visits to promote business and investment links. Premier Li will visit a lithium refinery at Kwinana, a joint venture with Chinese-owned Tianqi Lithium, and a Fortescue facility. He will join business leaders at an Australia-China CEO roundtable organized by the Business Council of Australia.

Former diplomat Jocelyn Chey notes that, given his background in promoting entrepreneurial and commercial development, Li will likely take a keen interest in the economic potential of greater interaction in industry and commerce.

While no major announcements are expected, the visit is more about protocol and relationship-building. The groundwork has already been laid through prior diplomatic engagements, such as the meetings between the Australian and Chinese foreign ministers in Canberra in March, and the defense ministers in Singapore earlier this month. Trade Minister Don Farrell has also been busy addressing trade restrictions, with recent announcements regarding barley and wine.

The Albanese government has largely achieved its goal of “stabilizing” relations. This visit is more about exploring future possibilities in the relationship. Many will be listening carefully to Li’s messaging, which might be subtle but significant, particularly in an opaque political system where high-level pronouncements are carefully parsed for policy hints.

The Chinese public is one of the most important audiences for this signaling. Lower-level officials, import companies, those planning holidays, and parents deciding where their children will study will be paying close attention. Australia will hope for a continuation of the message that it is back on the “friendly” country list. The perception that Australia was “not so friendly, even hostile” had a negative impact on many small decisions by a range of actors. The fact that Li’s daughter studied in Australia might be mentioned to reinforce positive ties.

Despite efforts to reduce controversy, the Chinese premier will likely face tough media questions and possible demonstrations by Uighur, Falun Gong, and Hong Kong protesters. Prime Minister Albanese has vowed to raise issues of concern during Li’s visit, consistent with his stance: “We will co-operate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.”

This will include human rights issues, such as the death sentence passed on Australian citizen Yang Hengjun earlier this year. Albanese will likely reiterate his concerns about Chinese actions against Australian personnel in the Yellow Sea enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea, along with other long-standing disagreements between the two countries.

Value of Diplomacy

Premier Li’s visit will illustrate that China and Australia can maintain a “normal” diplomatic relationship after years of “deep freeze.” It will underscore the value of diplomacy not as an end in itself, but as a means to communicate, resolve differences, and influence. The UTS
/BIDA Poll released this week shows how deep Australians’ mistrust of China continues to be, indicating that a state visit alone cannot resolve these issues.

However, compared to the years when Australia had no effective communication channels with China, the current situation is an improvement. As Australia seeks to manage relations with China in line with its national interest and support for global rules, diplomacy provides tools to maximize positives and limit negatives in this perennially important but challenging relationship.

Premier Li Qiang’s visit marks a significant moment in Sino-Australian relations, showcasing a thaw in a once-frozen relationship. While major announcements are unlikely, the visit emphasizes the importance of diplomatic engagement and economic collaboration. By addressing contentious issues and fostering positive ties, both countries can work towards a more stable and constructive relationship, reflecting mutual respect and understanding in a complex global landscape.

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