China President Xi Jing Ping’s pitch to Anthony Albanese for relationship repair for Gough Whitlam anniversary
Olsson, a partner at Hong Kong law firm King & Wood Mallesons, was among six Australian executives, including from BHP and Rio Tinto, to meet with their Chinese counterparts from Sinosteel and Chinalco for the first time in two years in December. He said the symbolism of the 50th anniversary of Whitlam’s establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1972 could be used to Australia’s advantage.
Anniversaries are particularly significant to the Chinese Communist Party, which attaches political and social capital to the historic markers to promote its hold on power.
“Despite all our differences, the anniversary is a massively important milestone,” said Olsson. “[It] cannot be overlooked.
“While both sides may wish to tread warily in some areas, it is an obvious opportunity to celebrate the decades of people-to-people, educational, business and cultural connections between both countries, as well as the contribution of the Chinese Australian community to the fabric of everyday life in Australia.”
The chief executive of Grain Growers Australia Dave McKeon said Australian barley growers have been losing $500 million a year since prohibitive tariffs were placed on Australian exports in May 2020. Those sanctions are now being contested at the World Trade Organisation. At the same time, wheat and sorghum exports to China have surged, while other farmers have diversified to Japan and Vietnam.
“We see a bit of a window of opportunity ahead of us. While we need to maintain our values and sovereignty as Australia we can absolutely continue to look at how we can engage in a really constructive way with Australia’s largest trading partner,” he said.
“Hypothetically, if we were to see those tariffs removed, China does have an ongoing high demand for high-quality grain and Australia is a large producer of high-quality grain. We’ve just come off the back of a really large crop. It would be great at some point in the future if we could resume that trade.”
McKeon said he was ready to work with the new Trade Minister Don Farrell to get negotiations moving. “The best course of action is through direct bilateral discussion,” he said.
In its editorial, Xinhua said China and Australia maintained a good relationship “for a long time” that brought both sides tangible benefits. The Chinese government-run news service quoted Fortescue and Minderoo chairman Andrew Forrest praising China for its “great support” during COVID-19 and Melbourne philanthropist and former diplomat Carrillo Gantner urging the relationship to “get back on the rails quickly”.
The business community has been accused of overlooking some of China’s aggressive measures in the region and human rights abuses at home in its pursuit of China’s massive market. That is the challenge that the Albanese government now faces as it attempts to land in a position where it can be critical of China’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea without the fear of economic retaliation.
Olsson said climate change cooperation could contribute to the repair of the relationship in the long term and strengthen commercial opportunities in the near term.
“Climate change is an area where there is common ground and where there is at least some scope for coordinated efforts,” he said.
The climate crisis facing the Pacific was at the centre of negotiations during Wang and Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s visits to the region over the past week. Wang, who flew to Tonga on Tuesday, said on Saturday that he was “willing to enhance communication with all countries that care about Pacific Island Countries, especially Australia and New Zealand”.
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