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Albanese to Be First Australian Prime Minister to Visit China Since 2016


FILE - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese smiles at the end of a press conference in Sydney, July 4, 2023. Albanese will visit China Nov. 4 through 7.
FILE - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese smiles at the end of a press conference in Sydney, July 4, 2023. Albanese will visit China Nov. 4 through 7.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will kick off a four-day visit to China on Saturday, the first by an Australian leader since 2016. While stabilizing bilateral trade relations is likely to top the agenda, analysts say Albanese also plans to address fundamental disagreements between Beijing and Canberra.

"We still have trade restrictions on Australian lobsters, Australian beef, and there's still the expedited review of the duties on wine that is yet to play out," said Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at Australian National University, or ANU.

"Assuming there hasn't been an agreement reached in advance on those remaining trade restrictions, I would expect that that issue will be top of mind for Prime Minister Albanese," he told VOA by phone.

The trip comes after Beijing lifted import restrictions on several Australian commodities, including coal, timber and barley, in recent months.

It also follows the news that China and Australia have agreed to suspend a longstanding World Trade Organization wine dispute as Beijing undertakes "an expedited review of its duties," which would last around five months. The Australian government said it’s "confident" of a successful outcome.

Trade tensions between China and Australia reached a high in 2020 after China imposed sanctions on Australian products worth $12.7 billion, including tariffs of between 116.2% and 218.4% on Australian wine.

The tariffs were part of Beijing’s retaliation against Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 in 2020. Since coming to power in 2022, Albanese has focused on easing tensions between China and Australia and promised to ensure the removal of sanctions on Australian commodities.

Herscovitch said Beijing will likely push Canberra to support its bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

"I imagine there'll be discussions about the plan for removing China's remaining trade restrictions, and once that discussion has taken place, the Chinese side will probably press the Australian side on backing China's bid for CPTPP entry," he told VOA. "China will also be looking for progress when it comes to access for Chinese companies to the Australian critical minerals industry."

Sensitive human rights issues

While stabilizing bilateral economic ties will be a priority, some experts think Albanese will also address the fundamental disagreements that Canberra and Beijing have on a list of contentious issues.

"There are other bilateral issues, including the arbitrary detention of Australian citizen Yang Hengjun, and a whole raft of regional security and larger issues that I don’t think Albanese can avoid," Alex Bristow, deputy director of the Defense, Strategy and National Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI, told VOA in a video interview.

Before Albanese revealed the date of his trip, Beijing on October 11 released Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was detained in China for almost three years under espionage-related charges. Despite the good news of Cheng’s release, Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian writer, has been in Chinese detention since 2019.

Feng Chongyi, an associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology Sydney and Yang’s doctoral advisor, told VOA by phone that Yang has a 10-centimeter cyst in his kidney. He worries that it could be a life-threatening situation for him as it’s unclear what type of physical examinations he might receive in detention.

In a letter to Albanese, which was shared with VOA, Yang’s family members urged the Australian prime minister and his cabinet members to "achieve a second miracle" by saving Yang.

"Our father, who is known to us as ‘Jun,’ is a proud Australian who loves this country and all it has given us," his family members wrote. "But now he is without human rights, and his situation is critical. The risk of being left to die from medical maltreatment is especially clear to our father because he has seen it happen to his friends."

Some experts say Albanese and his cabinet members have consistently advocated for Australian citizens detained by China and expressed concerns about human rights violations in China since they came to power. They think similar efforts will be incorporated into his trip to China.

"These concerns will be woven into Albanese’s visit to China," Elena Collinson, manager of research analysis at the Australia-China Relations Institute, told VOA in a written response.

"Explicitly acknowledging areas of difference between Australia and China has been a recurring point in official interactions with Beijing," she said. "The Albanese government is conscious that it would be swiftly held to domestic political account should it be seen as complicit through omission."

Balancing act

Some observers say Albanese’s latest diplomatic charm offensive, highlighted by his four-day trips to the U.S. and China, reflects Canberra’s attempt to play a balancing act between the two great powers.

"It’s not a completely new dilemma for Australia to balance the relationship with its primary trading partner, China, and its primary strategic partner, the U.S.," Bristow from ASPI told VOA. "It is more acute now because of the nature of Xi Jinping's regime."

Apart from the AUKUS agreement that Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. signed in 2021, which Albanese characterized as "an unprecedented level of partnership," Canberra and Washington also agreed to upgrade two air bases in Northern Australia in July.

As competition between the U.S. and China intensifies, Herscovitch from ANU said, Canberra is deeply worried about the possibility of a lack of dialogue or engagement between Beijing and Washington, so they want to encourage both sides to "keep talking and keep maintaining a constructive dialogue."

"From Canberra’s point of view, the goal is [also] to continue to deepen economic ties with China while strengthening security ties with the United States as a hedge against the risk of China becoming more of a threat in the military security arena," he told VOA.

In his view, Australia’s attempt to strike a balance between China and the U.S. is like riding "two horses simultaneously that are both going in quite different directions."

"Australia is trying to do both things simultaneously, hence a visit to Washington with all sorts of pomp and positive rhetoric about the U.S.-Australia alliance, and then a visit to Beijing with a similarly upbeat gloss," Herscovitch said.