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Australia invites China’s Wang Yi to visit next month

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The rocky relationship between Australia and China is starting to smooth out. After years of rising tensions, the two countries are making moves to improve ties.

A big sign of better times ahead is China’s foreign minister Wang Yi accepting an invite to visit Australia next month. This would be the highest level meeting between the nations since things went south.

Both sides want to fix the relationship but some major issues could still cause trouble. Australia hopes China will lift bans on exports that sparked the spat. China wants Australia to sign a new technology deal, which makes the US nervous about helping China’s military.

Still, for all the risks, this surprise warm-up shows the two economies are drawn together. With savvy diplomacy, common interests can prevail.

But big differences remain in their worldviews as China grows stronger. Australia is inching closer to fellow democracies despite hopes of making up with China.

They both want to avoid another freeze. Yet with deep forces causing friction, the relationship is still on thin ice. The outlook calls for more cold patches ahead.

Relations between Australia and China have been on a rocky road over the past few years, with tensions rising over issues like Chinese influence in the Pacific, Australia’s security alliances, and espionage concerns. However, recent developments point to efforts on both sides to stabilize and improve bilateral ties.

In a sign of warming relations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been invited to visit Australia next month. This follows Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s trip to China late last year, marking the first high-level engagement between the two countries in several years. Wang’s upcoming visit presents an opportunity to address ongoing disagreements and continue rebuilding trust.

A key area of difference remains China’s expanding security presence in the Pacific Islands region. Australia has traditionally seen the Pacific as within its sphere of influence and has been troubled by China’s inroads through policing and other cooperation agreements.

Australia’s Pacific Minister Pat Conroy said there should be “no role” for China in policing the Pacific Islands, and Australia will train more local security forces to fill gaps.

Conroy added: “We are aware that they are seeking a greater security role in the Pacific and we have been consistent in our view that there is no role for China in policing, or broader security, in the Pacific.”

His comments came after reports emerged of uniformed Chinese police assisting local officers in Kiribati. The news drew cautions from the United States too about accepting Chinese security assistance.

There are no Australian police in Kiribati, although Canberra has pledged to fund a new police radio network, police barracks and two maritime security advisors are supporting Kiribati police to maintain a donated patrol boat.

Australia is now pledging to train more Pacific Island police to reduce reliance on China. There are concerns China aims to establish a permanent law enforcement foothold in the region, which could enable dual civilian and military use. From Australia’s perspective, this raises strategic worries given the Pacific’s proximity.

Wang’s visit provides the chance to directly address differences over Pacific security. But bridging the gap won’t be easy given clashing perspectives. China insists cooperation is welcomed by Pacific leaders and poses no threat. Meanwhile, Australia and allies see risks in allowing Chinese boots on the ground. The divide mirrors wider tensions over Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

The sentencing of Australian citizen Yang Jun in China for espionage has also cast a dark shadow over efforts to rebuild bilateral ties. Yang was handed a suspended death sentence in what marks one of Beijing’s harshest punishments for spying charges in recent years.

While the suspended sentence means Yang will avoid execution for now, he faces the grim prospect of life behind bars if no further leniency is shown.

The case of Yang, a blogger and former Chinese diplomat turned Australian citizen, has long been a source of friction. Despite repeated calls by Canberra for his release, Yang has been detained since 2019 without due process or transparency.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong declared Australia will protest the sentencing in the “strongest terms”. With Yang’s fate now a high-profile grievance, the affair seems certain to aggravate tensions.

This poses a new hurdle for Australian diplomacy in balancing public demands for action on Yang’s behalf against broader interests in stabilizing ties with Beijing.

Beyond security, Australia also faces tricky negotiations with China across trade, technology and other domains. Though bilateral trade has recovered substantially from past Chinese sanctions, Australian exports like wine and lobsters still suffer restrictions.

There are hopes Wang’s trip may yield progress on lifting remaining trade blocks as goodwill gestures. But substantively resolving market access issues could require protracted talks addressing the root causes of China’s economic coercion against Australia.

Also, the trip will follow the “two sessions”, China’s annual gathering of its top legislature and political advisory body, where Wang will deliver a press conference on China’s diplomacy.

Meanwhile, another focus for Wang’s visit will be negotiating a bilateral science and technology agreement. The pact has been stalled due to Australian worries about research collaboration aiding Chinese military advancement. A fresh science deal would open up welcome research opportunities.

Yet with Australia aligning more closely with the US through AUKUS and other initiatives, expect strong cautions from Washington against tech cooperation that could benefit China’s military. Navigating in the midst of intensifying US-China technology competition will prove a delicate balancing act.

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney said: “Of course, Aukus will see Australia tighten research cooperation with the US and UK, and shrink cooperation with China in technologies with clear military applications.”

Laurenceson added: “But that still leaves enormous opportunities for joint scientific research that delivers benefits for both sides – renewable energy, adapting to climate change, medical advances and so on.”

He noted that Canberra is also “pragmatic enough” to recognise that Australia’s limited scale makes international collaboration “a necessity”, while cutting Australian scientists off from Chinese talent and resources “would be a massive own goal that Canberra wouldn’t want to kick”.

Beyond policy disagreements, the scandal over alleged Chinese agent Di Sanh Duong further clouds the atmosphere for Wang’s visit. Duong recently became the first person jailed under new Australian foreign interference laws, after a plot to influence a federal Australian minister came to light.

The case exposed how figures with deep community ties can be co opted to advance Chinese state interests through political donations, lobbying, and other pressure. It served as a warning that Australian democracy itself is under covert attack by Chinese intelligence and influence operations.

Duong’s sentencing signifies Australia’s willingness to punish foreign interference and espionage. Though a single case, it was symbolically important in demonstrating the threat is being taken seriously by authorities. However, this will reinforce suspicions in Beijing about perceived anti-China biases.

All in all, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s upcoming Australia trip comes at a complex juncture for bilateral relations. It holds promise to place dialogue above disputes and chart a more constructive course. But structural forces around technology, security, and values continue to pull the relationship apart.

Both sides have shown will to stabilize ties and build economic bridges. This serves their interests as major trading partners. Yet below the surface, strategic mistrust lingers as Australia aligns more closely with fellow democracies in response to China’s rise.

A truly reset relationship requires not just high-level talks but confronting fundamental differences over the Asian order. As China presses its claims and seeks to shape regional affairs, Australia and allies will continue hedging through balancing coalitions. This echoes a pattern seen throughout history when rising powers challenged established ones.

For now, Wang’s visit is a modest yet meaningful step in thawing relations. Beijing likely wishes to mitigate Australia’s Collusion with efforts seen as constraining Chinese power. At the same time, Australia hopes for moderation in Chinese conduct within accepted rules of diplomacy and commerce. Both sides have incentives to explore compromise.

But the divide between their strategic visions will be hard to overcome. Australia seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific aligned with fellow democracies. Meanwhile, China wants greater deference to its interests as it marshals regional sway. Navigating between these positions will be a continuing challenge in Australia-China ties.

Wang’s trip may yield agreements to expand cooperation in less sensitive areas, like climate change, agriculture, and cultural exchange. This could help balance security differences. Yet on core issues of technology and regional order, significant gaps will remain even if language is smoothed for now.

Managing Australia’s complex relationship with a more assertive China under Xi Jinping’s leadership will test statesmanship on all sides. More turbulence may be ahead as power dynamics keep shifting. But with skilled diplomacy, shared interests can still be protected through tactical cooperation — even between profoundly different systems and worldviews.

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