China’s premier will continue to paper over perceptions his country is on a quest for dominance and talk up its commitment to freedom of overflight and maritime navigation in the South China Sea during bilateral talks with Malcolm Turnbull.
Li Keqiang and his wife Professor Cheng Hong were on Thursday honoured at a formal lunch in the Great Hall at Parliament House following a ceremonial welcome that included a 19 gun salute over the heads of protesters and supporters.
The pair arrived in Canberra late on Wednesday night as part of a seven-day tour of Australia and New Zealand.
The prime minister and Mr Li will get down to business on Friday and sign a bevvy of economic and security agreements.
Mr Turnbull flagged the pair will discuss an upgrade to the year-old China-Australia free trade deal which is expected to offer new opportunities in services and in investment.
Cattle producers are hopeful there could be greater access for Australian chilled beef to the Chinese market.
Strategic issues such as the South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear threat and US President Donald Trump are expected to be discussed during the bilateral talks.
China has coped international criticism for its activities building artificial islands in the South China Sea and its installation of weapons on them.
China claims most of the South China Sea, while Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei claim parts of the waters. Both Australia and the US are concerned about freedom of navigation in important trade shipping routes.
“China is firmly committed to being on the path of peaceful development,” Mr Li told the lunch on Thursday.
“Even when China grows in the future, we will never seek dominance. We stand ready to work with Australia for peace in our region, for maritime navigation freedom and the freedom of overflight and we will continue to do that.”
Australian National University Professor Rory Medcalf said Mr Li’s comments on freedom of navigation were intriguing but unlikely to mean a change in China’s policies.
“It would be a different story of course if Chinese forces actually stopped challenging the Australian air force surveillance flights over international waters in the South China Sea,” he told AAP, adding these had been challenged dozens of times in recent years.
Among the tricky issues likely to be discussed in the leaders’ meeting is the legal fate of the 14 Crown employees arrested and detained for five months without charge.
China may also seek progress on an extradition treaty, which is facing parliamentary delays in Australia, in order to bolster its efforts to crack down on corrupt officials who have fled.
Mr Li will fly to Sydney later on Friday afternoon for meetings with Australian business leaders as well as Australian state premiers and Chinese provincial leaders.
His visit isn’t all work and no play.
He’ll join Mr Turnbull to watch the AFL Sydney Swans play Port Adelaide on the weekend.
The AFL will stage a match between Port and the Gold Coast in Shanghai in May.
By Lisa Martin