Chinese premier Li Qiang promises new pandas, declares relationship with Australia ‘back on track’

Dan Jervis-Bardy and Tim Clarke
The Nightly
Panda diplomacy has lived up to its name, with visiting Chinese premier Li Qiang announcing the country will gift Australia two new pandas for Adelaide Zoo.
Panda diplomacy has lived up to its name, with visiting Chinese premier Li Qiang announcing the country will gift Australia two new pandas for Adelaide Zoo. Credit: The West Australian

Panda diplomacy has lived up to its name, with Chinese Premier Li Qiang pledging two new pandas for Adelaide Zoo as long-time residents Wang Wang and Fu Ni return home.

Mr Li made the announcement on Sunday after declaring the Australia-China relationship “back on track” following a tumultuous period marked by diplomatic tensions and trade spats.

The last of China’s major trade sanctions – a ban on live lobster imports – is set to be lifted with Trade Minister Don Farrell “very confident” it would happen soon.

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Beijing’s second-in-charge is making the first trip to Australia by a Chinese premier in seven years, with stops in Adelaide, Canberra and Perth part of a four-day tour.

He stopped at Adelaide Zoo on Sunday morning to confirm the new panda agreement before visiting a winery.

“Wang Wang and Fu Ni have been a way from home for more than 15 years, I guess they must have missed their home a lot. So they will return to China before the end of the year,” Mr Li said through a translator.

“But what I want to tell you is that we will provide a new pair of uniquely beautiful, lovely and adorable [pandas] to the Adelaide Zoo.

“I’m sure they will be loved and taken good care of by the people of Adelaide, South Australia, and Australia.”

In a statement after arriving in Australia, Premier Li said the Australia-China relationships was “back on track” after what he described as a period of “twists and turns”.

He said both countries benefit from “shelving differences” and “seeking common ground”.

Tensions still linger between Canberra and Beijing, in particular as China seeks to expand its influence in the Pacific.

Speaking ahead of talks with Mr Li, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the Pacific was now in a “state of permanent contest”.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 16: Wang Wang the Panda at Adelaide Zoo on June 16, 2024 in Adelaide, 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 Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Wang Wang the Panda at Adelaide Zoo on June 16, 2024 in Adelaide, Australia. Credit: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

She blamed the former Coalition Government for the predicament, accusing it of abandoning the region during its near decade in power.

Senator Wong will next week lead a delegation of seven ministers to Papua New Guinea in a further sign of the Federal Government’s focus on the region.

“We are now in a position where Australia is a partner of choice but the opportunity to be the only partner of choice has been lost by Mr Dutton and his colleagues,” she told ABC’s Insiders program.

“And we’re in the state of permanent contest in the Pacific.”

Senator Wong promised not to shirk the tough questions during talks with Premier Li, including advocating for Australian writer Yang Hengjun who languishes ill in a Chinese jail.

The imprisonment of Mr Yang, who received a suspended death sentence in February and remains in jail, and the targeting of Australian residents by Hong Kong authorities are thorny points in the relationship.

“We will continue to advocate where ever we are able and we will continue to advocate for appropriate medical treatment” for Mr Yang, Senator Wong said when asked whether she would raise his ill health with Premier Li.

She reiterated Australia’s long-standing position on Taiwan, describing it as “one of the riskier flashpoints” in the world.

China’s military has stepped up training exercises around Taiwan, as it reinforces the long-held Chinese position that the island is part of the mainland and may be taken by force.

Several military incidents have also flared tensions between the two nations, the latest involving a Chinese jet fighter dropping flares in front of a Royal Australian Navy helicopter in international waters.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is keen to drum up more business from the nation’s biggest trading partner to keep the base of the relationship intact while managing the geopolitical elements of China’s growth and projection of power.

Mr Albanese will hold talks with Mr Li in Canberra on Monday, and then again alongside business leaders from both countries in Perth on Tuesday.

Mr Li on Sunday met with winemakers, who have been celebrating a return to the market that has driven global wine sales for decades, following the lifting of a ban on Australian wine.

Beijing has gradually dropped restrictions on exports, with less than $1 billion worth of trade restrictions remaining on rock lobsters and two meatworks.

Around 350 winemakers, mostly South Australian, are now selling their products back into the Chinese market.

Senator Farrell, who is a South Australian winemaker himself, said business was booming again for the nation’s wine producers.

“In the last month, since the ban on wine was lifted, we’ve sold $86 million of wine into China,” Senator Farrell said on Sunday Agenda.

Premier Li will travel to Canberra on Sunday afternoon where he will be met by Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.

With AAP

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