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‘Constructive, mature’: Albo lauds renewed relationship with China after meeting Premier Li Qiang in Canberra

Katina Curtis and Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
Chinese Premier Li Qiang shake hands with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang shake hands with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Credit: Getty Images

Australia and China will examine ways to make sure their militaries talk to each other to ensure incidents don’t escalate into something worse as the two countries celebrated a renewed relationship following historic talks.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese highlighted the fresh push to strengthen communications as a practical measure to come out of his meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang in Canberra on Monday.

China’s second-in-command was ceremoniously welcomed by Mr Albanese before a closed-door meeting on Monday, ahead of a state lunch and a meeting with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.

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But with all the strict protocol and staid diplomatic discussions inside Parliament House, there were tensions and scuffles between pro-government supporters and anti-China protesters outside the building and a stand-off between Australian and Chinese officials over the rights of media going about their jobs.

Mr Albanese said the talks had been constructive, while Mr Li characterised them as “candid, in-depth and fruitful”.

“I think dialogue helps. It’s always positive when people are engaging and we engage in a very direct way about some of the differences that we have,” Mr Albanese said afterwards when asked how both sides were seeking to ensure the relationship didn’t slip again.

He raised foreign interference, human rights, the cases of Australians on death row including writer Yang Hengjun, military incidents over recent months, the Pacific, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, mining cooperation and trade.

“On some issues there’s immediate agreement, on some issues there is not. We have differences of opinion, but it’s important that we be able to express those, that we’re able to be constructive about it,” Mr Albanese said.

“For example, one of the very practical measures that we spoke about was improving military-to-military communication so as to avoid incidents, getting that dialogue.”

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 17: A gun salute is seen as Chinese Premier Li Qiang inspects a guard of honour outside the Australian Parliament House on June 17, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. Li's visit to Australia aims to strengthen bilateral ties and address outstanding trade and consular issues, including the removal of remaining trade barriers and the release of imprisoned Australian democracy blogger Yang Hengjuno, marking a significant step towards stabilizing the relationship between the two nations. The visit also highlights the growing importance of economic cooperation and the need for dialogue on security concerns, particularly in the context of China's increasing influence in the Pacific region. The visit marks the first high-level diplomatic by a Chinese leader to Australia since 2017. (Photo by Lukas Coch - Pool/Getty Images)
A gun salute is seen as Chinese Premier Li Qiang inspects a guard of honour. Credit: Lukas Coch - Pool/Getty Images

China expert Benjamin Herscovitch, from ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance, said it would be important to see the details of how this might work, but it appeared to be a recognition there needed to be more ready channels of communication between the two militaries so situations could be de-escalated and the possibility of fatalities avoided.

Australia has called out recent “unsafe and unprofessional” incidents by the Chinese military, including dropping flares and chaff near aircraft and the use of a sonar pulse that injured Australian naval divers.

“We’ve seen a series of dangerous incidents which could very easily, if the relevant commanders didn’t behave in the appropriate way, result in fatalities and that would be disastrous for the relevant countries, but also for regional security in general,” Dr Herscovitch said.

“So to the extent that that is what China is doing, there is, I think, an added reason to have communication channels that allow for quick and immediate comms between the PLA and other militaries.”

The leaders signed agreements on economic dialogue, trade, education, climate change cooperation and cultural exchanges.

They also agreed to continue high-level interactions, with Mr Albanese accepting an invitation to return to China next year, and fully resume institutional dialogues across all areas.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 17: Chinese Premier Li Qiang inspects a guard of honour outside the Australian Parliament House on June 17, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. Li's visit to Australia aims to strengthen bilateral ties and address outstanding trade and consular issues, including the removal of remaining trade barriers and the release of imprisoned Australian democracy blogger Yang Hengjuno, marking a significant step towards stabilizing the relationship between the two nations. The visit also highlights the growing importance of economic cooperation and the need for dialogue on security concerns, particularly in the context of China's increasing influence in the Pacific region. The visit marks the first high-level diplomatic by a Chinese leader to Australia since 2017. (Photo by Lukas Coch - Pool/Getty Images)
The protestors could be heard as Mr Albanese had greeted Mr Li under the cover of Parliament House’s Great Verandah as a 19-gun salute fired. Credit: Pool/Getty Images

Mr Li flagged an examination of reciprocal visa arrangements for tourists and visiting family members, with China to include Australia in its visa waiver program.

“We also had a candid exchange of views on some differences and disagreements and agreed to properly manage them in a manner befitting our comprehensive strategic partnership,” Mr Li said, via a translator.

“We both stand for expanding mutually beneficial cooperation and enhancing the vitality and durability of China-Australia relations.”

Mr Albanese said he had made clear his consistent line that Australia and China should cooperate where they can but disagree where they must and always act in the national interest.

“Australia advocates we should all work together to promote a regional balance where no country dominates and no country is dominated. A region where countries large and small operate by the same rules, rules that we all have a say in shaping,” he said.

Mr Dutton said both sides had a responsibility to ensure that all engagements between the two countries “are conducted with due care”.

“In our offer of hospitality today – and your acceptance of it – I believe that there is hope,” he said in a toast at the state lunch.

“Hope that tensions of recent years can ameliorate. Hope that we can reinvigorate the constructive spirit which defined our signing of a Free Trade Agreement in 2015.”

Outside, dozens of police and physical barricades separated the competing groups rallying as they shouted at each other with increasing ferocity.

The group protesting China’s human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong had planned to burn the Chinese Communist Party’s flag – albeit away from government supporters to avoid being “provocative” – but the plan was spoiled by police at the last minute, confiscating the flag and a fire extinguisher.

A tussle ensued before police eventually ripped the flag away and removed it.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 17: Chinese Premier Li Qiang shake hands with Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese looks on at Australian Parliament House on June 17, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. Li's visit to Australia aims to strengthen bilateral ties and address outstanding trade and consular issues, including the removal of remaining trade barriers and the release of imprisoned Australian democracy blogger Yang Hengjuno, marking a significant step towards stabilizing the relationship between the two nations. The visit also highlights the growing importance of economic cooperation and the need for dialogue on security concerns, particularly in the context of China's increasing influence in the Pacific region. The visit marks the first high-level diplomatic by a Chinese leader to Australia since 2017. (Photo by Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images)
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 17: Chinese Premier Li Qiang shake hands with Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese looks on at Australian Parliament House on June 17, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. Credit: Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images

The protesters could be heard as Mr Albanese greeted Mr Li under the cover of Parliament House’s Great Verandah as a 19-gun salute fired.

Both men were clad in winter coats in the crisp 3C morning air for the brief ceremony on the forecourt.

“Chilly, chilly time of the year here, but frost on the ground as you drive up to Parliament, so that’s quite pretty,” Foreign Minister Penny Wong quipped on radio ahead of the meeting.

Mr Li, whose visit marks the first from a Chinese leader since 2017, inspected the tri-service Federation Guard and exchanged words briefly with the army band’s commander.

He and Mr Albanese stood on a dais as the national anthems of both countries played, first China’s March of the Volunteers then Advance Australia Fair.

The music drowned out the protestors but most of the 10-minute ceremony was conducted in silence, meaning the competing chants of “Xi Jinping” and anti-China slogans including “Free Tibet”, “We want freedom” and “Shame on China” could be easily heard.

During the leaders’ remarks to media, Chinese embassy officials repeatedly tried to stand in front of journalist Cheng Lei to block her from the views of cameras. Ms Cheng now works for Sky News after spending three years in detention in China.

Australian officials protested the move to physically block views of the media contingent.

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