Scott Morrison meets Chinese Premier as Australia hopes to emerge from diplomatic freezer

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Australian and Chinese leaders have talked up the opportunities for future cooperation on issues of common interest, brushing aside recent diplomatic strain stemming from key philosophical differences.

Key points:

  • Prime Minister Morrison arrived in Bangkok ahead of the East Asia Summit
  • China denied there has been a “historical feud” between Canberra and Beijing
  • Mr Morrison is expected to press India to join the world’s largest trade pact with ASEAN

A 45-minute meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was the first item on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s agenda as he flew in to Bangkok on Sunday afternoon ahead of the East Asia Summit on Monday.

Canberra’s relationship with Beijing has been tense over the past few years, with China taking exception to accusations the country is trying to interfere with Australia’s political system.

China has also repeatedly suggested Australia keep its criticisms private, when senior ministers have spoken out on issues such as human rights abuses.

Just last week, Foreign Minister Marise Payne was on the receiving end of a stern rebuke from China’s Foreign Ministry, which labelled her comments about an Australian academic locked up on suspicion of espionage as being ill informed and lacking a basic understanding of the facts.

Mr Morrison and Mr Li pushed the importance of their nation’s economic partnership, while also respecting each other’s political processes.

“There is no historical feud or fundamental conflict of interest between China and Australia,” a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry read.

“The two sides should grasp the general direction of China-Australia relations, truly regard each other’s development as an opportunity … properly handle differences, and push for the return of China-Australia relations to the normal track of long term health and stability.”

Mr Morrison said he greatly appreciated Australia’s number one trading partner.

“Like you, I feel very strongly and am committed to improving that relationship and ensuring we realise its full potential,” he told Mr Li.

Mr Morrison had been hoping to meet President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the now-cancelled APEC summit in Chile, scheduled for later this month.

With just over a day on the ground in Bangkok, the Prime Minister’s schedule is tight.

He will sit down with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, Singapore’s Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesia President Joko Widodo.

He will also meet with the host of the East Asian Summit, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as he expands the number of places available for Thai citizens under Australia’s working holiday visa programs from 500 to 2,000.

ASEAN leaders push toward pact

Regional security, including discussion about tensions in the South China Sea and North Korea, will dominate discussion at the East Asia Summit, alongside trade.

Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders are trying to reach a deal with Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea and India on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — which could become the largest global trade pact in history.

The image shows a map of the 16 Asia Pacific countries involved, and includes information of what the deal covers

Mr Morrison is expected raise the negotiations in a meeting with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on Monday.

Prime Minister Modi is facing pressure at home to walk away from the deal, amid concerns it will undermine the country’s already struggling economy.

“India has been hesitant in respect to trade deals in recent times, largely because their experience with them since 2000 hasn’t been great from their end,” Zoe McKenzie, head of Australian trade consultancy Trade and Investment Advisory, told the ABC.

“They have seen a surge of imports into India, and their exports haven’t kept pace.

“So they remain somewhat circumspect about the fairness of trade deals, and for that reason haven’t been particularly enthusiastic.”

Ms McKenzie is a former chief of staff to former trade minister Andrew Robb, and saw firsthand some of the negotiations on a trade pact with India.

She argued it is time for Australia to rekindle those talks.

“There’s a lot to be gained by doing so, it’s where the growth is going to be in the next 10 years, and as we’ve said, Mr Modi has been on the record saying he wants a deal with Australia,” she said.

By Matthew Doran
ABC

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