What is on the agenda for Chinese premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia?

<span>Chinese premier Li Qiang and Anthony Albanese at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Liu Bin/AP</span>
Chinese premier Li Qiang and Anthony Albanese at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2023.Photograph: Liu Bin/AP

China’s premier, Li Qiang, will arrive in Australia on Saturday for a four-day visit that will include stops in Adelaide, Canberra and Perth.

It is the first visit to Australia by a Chinese premier since 2017, and marks the latest step in “stabilising” a relationship that hit rock bottom in 2020.

Here are five things to look out for.

Trade-offs

After arriving in Adelaide on Saturday, Li’s first focus will be on panda diplomacy, followed by attempts to showcase the easing of trade barriers.

Wine was one of the Australian export sectors hit hardest when China rolled out a series of tariffs and other trade restrictions in 2020, amid tensions sparked by a range of issues including the Morrison government’s early public calls for a global Covid origins inquiry. Li – China’s second-highest ranked official after the president, Xi Jinping – is expected to dine at a South Australian winery on Sunday, just three months after Beijing scrapped tariffs on Australian wine.

Most of the trade restrictions have now been abandoned, but some still remain – including on live lobster and red meat from certain exporters. Anthony Albanese is expected to use the meeting with Li in Canberra on Monday to press for the removal of the remaining “trade impediments” – the term that is now favoured over the previous language of “trade sanctions” or “economic coercion”.

Li will have his own trade and economy-related wishlist on the trip. He is likely to once again press China’s case to enter into the regional trade pact known as the CPTPP, and to argue that Chinese investors should not be unfairly targeted or discriminated against.

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Human rights and wrongs

The Australian government says it routinely raises human rights and consular cases in high-level meetings with the Chinese government, including over Xinjiang and Tibet.

The guilty verdicts handed last month to Australian-Hong Kong dual national Gordon Ng and 13 other pro-democracy campaigners have fuelled the Australian government’s pre-existing concerns about the crackdown on dissent in the previously semi-autonomous region. Last week, a Senate estimates committee heard that Australian officials had made at least 14 unsuccessful requests for consular access to Ng, with his dual nationality likely the reason for blocking such visits.

Albanese is also expected to raise the case of the detained Australian writer Dr Yang Hengjun. It will be the first face-to-face opportunity for the prime minister to raise concerns directly with Li since a Chinese court issued Yang with a suspended death sentence in February. At the time, Albanese told reporters his government had conveyed to China “our despair, our frustration, but – to put it really simply – our outrage at this verdict”, adding that Yang was “not in good health”.

Military manoeuvring

Albanese has said he will raise two recent cases of “dangerous” and “inappropriate” conduct by the People’s Liberation Army in interactions with Australian defence force personnel.

The Australian government accused a PLA fighter jet of releasing flares in front of an Australian Seahawk helicopter that was accompanying HMAS Hobart in the Yellow Sea on 4 May. In an earlier incident on 14 November 2023, the government complained that sonar pulses from a PLA navy destroyer endangered Australian divers who were trying to clear fishing nets HMAS Toowoomba was entangled in off the coast of Japan.

In the sonar pulse case, Chinese authorities accused the Australian government of making “rude and irresponsible accusations toward China”, while in the more recent case its foreign ministry accused the Australian helicopter of deliberately flying “within close range” of Chinese airspace in a “provocative move”.

Regional and global security

The talks about the military encounters will likely feed into broader discussions about the regional security environment.

The Australian government is particularly concerned about China’s more assertive actions in the South China Sea, including near the Philippines. It has also raised concerns about the PLA’s recent drills around Taiwan in the wake of the self-governed democracy’s presidential elections. Australia’s position is to oppose the use or threat of use of force to change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, following China’s long-held goal of “reunification”. Albanese and his senior ministers will probably stress the need for China to act in a way that reassures the region.

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For its part, China routinely urges countries such as Australia not to “meddle” in what it regards as its own internal affairs. The Chinese government is deeply suspicious of the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine pact and other groupings such as the Quad, viewing them as Australia backing US-led attempts to contain its growth. It would be unsurprising if Li took the opportunity to urge Australia to chart its own course rather than allowing itself to be tied too closely to US strategy.

In discussions on global security, Australia will likely encourage China to exert influence on Russia to end the invasion of Ukraine. The two sides will probably also discuss their shared alarm about the humanitarian consequences of the Israel-Gaza war.

Climate of cooperation?

The Australian government has repeatedly said that its approach to China is to “cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest”.

Climate change appears to be one of the areas where both sides believe there is scope for cooperation and collaboration. After last year’s leaders’ meeting in Beijing, China and Australia committed to resume climate change and energy dialogues, and launch technical cooperation on soil carbon testing and climate-smart agriculture practices.

Given that climate action will only be effective if deep cuts to emissions are made across the globe, this looks like an area where Albanese and Li might be inclined to flag further efforts.

After Li’s meetings in Canberra on Monday – which will include side talks with the opposition leader, Peter Dutton – he is due to travel to Western Australia where he will have dialogues with business leaders and Chinese-Australian community members.

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