Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is in Australia for a five-day visit that will focus on boosting global trade.
China is Australia’s largest export market, responsible for nearly a third of its total exports, according to the government.
Writing in an Australian newspaper, Premier Li referred to the isolationist rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump, who earlier this year pulled his country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that had been signed by 12 nations and would have covered 40 percent of the world’s economy.
Li said “protectionism offers no genuine protection. History cannot be turned back, just as the trend of the times cannot be reversed.”
Analysts believe Trump’s policies are giving China an opportunity to fill a strategic void and allow it to promote itself as a champion of free trade.
Australia is an enthusiastic supporter of globalization, and has signed several free trade deals, including accords with South Korea, Japan and, most recently, China.
But complicating the diplomatic landscape is Canberra’s long-standing military alliance with the United States. That relationship is becoming increasingly tested by rising tensions between the U.S. and China, according to Jane Golley, the deputy director of the Australian Center on China in the World at the Australian National University.
“Australia has had this pretty simple dividing line, in a way, of thinking about the economic relationship with China and our alliance with the United States, and we have managed those two things pretty comfortably, I think, through to this point,” Golley said.
“But it does seem to have reached a fairly critical juncture, you know, with tensions growing between the United States and China and, you know, on a trade front but as well as more broadly. So how Australia navigates through that path, I think, has become increasingly tricky,” she added.
South China Sea on agenda
During his five-day visit, Li is expected to encourage Australian companies to join China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, a series of infrastructure projects stretching from Central Asia to Europe, and across South East Asia, South Asia, and Africa.
Australian officials are also expected to address China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he will “speak frankly and constructively” to Li about those tensions in the region.