China signals will to rebuild relationship with Australia despite concerns about growing influence in the region

Beijing has signalled it is willing to rebuild its relationship with Australia under the Morrison government, and says there is no conflict between the two nations in the South Pacific despite concerns about China's growing influence in the region. Picture: Australian Institute of International Affairs

NEW YORK/SHANGHAI, 26 SEPTEMBER 2018 (THE FINANCIAL REVIEW) – Beijing has signalled it is willing to rebuild its relationship with Australia under the Morrison government, and says there is no conflict between the two nations in the South Pacific despite concerns about China’s growing influence in the region.

The improved assessment of Australia’s relationship with its biggest trading partner followed a meeting between the countries’ foreign ministers in New York. China watchers said although the remarks showed both countries were using the change of government in Australia to reset relations, there would not be a “big change” overnight.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he was confident the relationship could “get back on track”, after meeting his Australian counterpart Marise Payne on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday (AEST). Wang talked up the two countries’ “highly complementary economies”.

“China has noticed the new government is willing to take an active China policy and we hope the Australia-China relationship can learn from previous lessons and get back on track to sound development,” Wang was quoted as saying by China’s Foreign Ministry shortly after the meeting.

“Ms Payne expressed the view that the Australian government will stick to the one-China policy and this shows respect to China’s core interest.”

Under its one-China policy, Beijing still regards the self-governed island of Taiwan as a renegade province that will return to the fold some day. Australia has not officially recognised Taiwan since the early 1970s.

“China is willing to join hands with Australia to rebuild trust on the basis of mutual respect,” Wang said.

Wang’s comments were the strongest signal from Beijing so far that it is willing to work with the Morrison government after the relationship soured last year over claims of Chinese interference. Diplomatic tensions between Canberra and Beijing have begun to ease following a conciliatory speech from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull last month.

“The Chinese foreign ministry’s upbeat comments take on greater significance given the Australian government’s recent decision to ban Huawei from participating in Australia’s 5G rollout,” said Australia China Relations Institute deputy director James Laurenceson.

“That could have sent the bilateral relationship into another downward spin, but the broader positive reset begun by Malcolm Turnbull is appearing resilient,” he said.

Xu Xiujun, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a Chinese government-linked think tank, was less optimistic. “It will not see a significant change overnight. The development of the bilateral relationship depends on the approach the Australian government will take,” he said.

Earlier, Payne said the world community wanted a “strong, positive, contributing China” even as countries such as Australia insisted on defending their national interest. It was her first meeting with her Chinese counterpart

Payne also reiterated Australia’s position was to “explore every opportunity that’s available to us in the open seas”, a reference to navigation through the South China Sea by Australian naval and air forces.

Her remarks coincide with a dramatic escalation in anti-China rhetoric in the US, which this week imposed tariffs on US$200 billion on imports from China.

Amid the tension, Payne sought to strike a conciliatory tone, describing her meeting with Wang as “constructive and productive” and noting that both had agreed to meet again in the “relatively near future”.

China’s reaction was a contrast to Wang’s comments following his meeting with former foreign minister Julie Bishop in May on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers’ gathering in Argentina. There, he said Australia needed to rethink its approach to China’s development.

Wang said on Tuesday China’s relationship with South Pacific island countries would not influence its ties with other nations.

China’s efforts to increase its influence over Pacific Island countries by boosting aid and infrastructure spending have alarmed Canberra, which wants to cement Australia’s influence on the region.

“The cooperation between China and South Pacific Island countries is transparent and open,” said Wang.

“There is no conflict on the South Pacific issue between China and Australia. We are willing to conduct third party cooperation with Australia based on the needs of South Pacific Island countries.”

He said Payne indicated Australia was willing to “strengthen cooperation” on China’s ambitious and controversial Belt and Road infrastructure programme through “constructive dialogue”.

James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University, said while both countries were using the change of government in Australia as an opportunity to reset the relationship, there were still challenges.

“There is a great deal of ballast in the relationship to draw upon,” he said.

“Yet the global landscape is altering rapidly, and we are likely to see more road bumps ahead as the two sides seeks to navigate the deep inequalities and clashing values at the heart of the relationship.”

Payne’s meeting was the first at her level since Bishop met Wang in May, which prompted a tersely worded statement from China’s foreign ministry urging Australia to take off its biased “coloured glasses” and allow the relationship to “return to the right track”.

Asked whether she was continuing the “reset” first announced by Turnbull in early August, Payne said Wang was aware of her long background in parliament and more recently as defence minister.

“We explored discussion around the opportunities that we have going forward; bilateral opportunities where we can engage closely together,” she said.

“We have a strong history. Australia’s economic relationship with China is extremely important to us.

“And a strong, positive, contributing China is exactly what the sort of thing that I think the world community wants to see,” he said.

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