China’s ambassador frustrated by slow progress in repairing Australia relationship

Key points

  • China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian says repair to relationship “not moving fast enough, not as fast as China would expect”.
  • The ambassador named tensions over Taiwan and the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang as the two major barriers to a reset.
  • Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong says the government will always speak out when necessary on the issues that matter to the Australian people.
  • Xiao said Australia “cannot find a better partner [than] China” as Australia diversifies trade links. 
  • The ambassador said he was willing to facilitate contact between jailed Australian Cheng Lei and her family. 

The Chinese government has aired its frustration with the slow progress in repairing its troubled relationship with Australia, setting out hopes for high-level talks with no preconditions to narrow differences on regional security, human rights and trade ties worth $245 billion.

China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, is seeking a reset in relations ahead of a series of global summits next month that he says offer a chance for both countries to “move towards each other” after a difficult few years.

China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, said both countries need to make concessions for relations to improve.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Xiao said ending the trade dispute would help Australia ride out a global recession and provide the government with enough revenue to fund the contentious stage three tax cuts.

The ambassador named tensions over Taiwan and the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang as the two major issues acting as a barrier to the reset, sending a message to Australia to convey its concerns about human rights through private channels rather than in public.

A United Nations Human Rights Council report in August said the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur and other ethnic minorities “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang province in western China.

Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has described the report as “harrowing reading” and Australia voted at the United Nations to debate the matter, although China defeated this move.

The new message comes at a time when federal ministers doubt the prospect of a dramatic improvement in ties after China restricted Australian exports ranging from barley and lobsters to wine and coal, worth $20 billion.

In November 2020, when the trade dispute was at its height, a Chinese embassy official gave The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age a list of 14 grievances with Australia preventing closer ties, saying: “If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.”

The ambassador told the Herald and The Age that efforts to reset the relationship were off to a “good start” under the new Labor government, but both sides needed to take action to avoid momentum stalling.

“It seems we’re not moving fast enough, not as fast as China would expect,” Xiao said in an interview at the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

Penny Wong has met her Chinese counterpart twice since the May election but said in September it would be a “long road” to improving relations between the two nations. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“It’s improving but on a slow, bit-by-bit basis.”

Trade Minister Don Farrell said on Tuesday: “I don’t think we ever want to get into a situation where we again are so reliant on China.”

Defence Minister Richard Marles met China’s defence minister in Singapore in June, while Foreign Minister Wong has met her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, twice since the May election.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson responded to the ambassador’s remarks by saying: “Australia and China have taken important steps to stabilise the relationship, including through a range of constructive ministerial engagements. This will require continued engagement and goodwill on both sides.

“We will continue to pursue stabilisation, but as Foreign Minister Wong said to State Councillor Wang [last month], Australia’s interests are constant and the government will always speak out when necessary on the issues that matter to the Australian people.”

Xiao said he had been in discussions with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs about practical steps Australia and China could take in coming months to improve the relationship.

Xiao said he had stressed that while the resumption of ministerial-level meetings was welcome, “we need to take some actions” beyond talking. “In a relationship, you need two hands to clap.”

Xiao described the coming G20 summit in Jakarta, APEC meeting in Bangkok and East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh as “important opportunities” for the two nations to repair relations and argued the economic gain could help boost the Australian government budget – and end the argument over income tax cuts.

Penny Wong a gives a speech to her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the G20 meeting in July. Credit:Johannes P. Christo

“If we have good relations between China and Australia, if we come back to a normal relationship, come back to comprehensive co-operation, why should Australia worry about the tax? You don’t have to worry about the tax cuts,” he said.

Commenting on calls for Australia to reduce its dependence on China, Xiao said: “Somebody may say that Australia can co-operate with many other countries. Congratulations. But in my view, you cannot find any other partner like China, you cannot find a better partner [than] China.”

Xiao angered some observers with a major speech to the National Press Club in August that included an assertion that China reserved the right to take control of Taiwan by force, but he played down that prospect in his interview this week and said China’s goal was peaceful reunification.

Xiao said Xinjiang and Taiwan were “two issues that are frequently, in certain ways, disrupting our efforts to reset the relationship”.

“I wish that the people in this country and the Labor government will be looking at the issues in a more objective or more balanced way, and address those issues in a constructive way,” he said.

“And we can talk about our views over these issues – but for public statements, it’s hurting the Chinese people.”

Public commentary on these topics was “not conducive to creating a favourable atmosphere”, he said, rejecting widespread claims China had pursued a policy of genocide in Xinjiang.

Asked about the detention of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who has been in custody in China for two years and is yet to learn the outcome of a closed trial held in March, the ambassador said he had no authority to interfere with the judicial process but could offer other help.

“I am willing to provide whatever assistance I can from a humanitarian perspective and in accordance with Chinese law to facilitate contact between Cheng Lei and her family or the Australian embassy in China,” he said.

The Australian government has called for “basic standards of justice” and humane treatment for Cheng, while the International Federation of Journalists has criticised the “complete lack of transparency” around the trial and called for her release.

On Taiwan, the ambassador said China’s official position was that there should be “one country, two systems” but acknowledged the Australian stance adopted in December 1972 only accepted a “one China” policy.

“We look to Australia to understand the Chinese position on Taiwan and stick to its China policy,” he said.

Xiao said China had no problem with Australia pursuing economic ties with Taiwan. “But we cannot accept any kind of official relationship between Australia and Taiwan,” he added.

Asked whether Wong or Farrell could be welcomed to Beijing for ministerial talks, he said: “I’d love to see various kinds of high-level contacts” and added that neither side should apply preconditions to the meeting.

“Even if we have differences or disputes, we should meet to talk and discuss and try to narrow down the differences and try to find a solution to those problems,” he said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates two-way trade between China and Australia was worth $245 billion in 2020.

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