Penny Wong to meet Chinese minister in sign of thawing relations between Australia and China

Following days of speculation, China’s foreign ministry confirmed the meeting after Wong signalled she was open to a direct conversation

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, will meet her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Bali on Friday in a direct conversation that is a further sign of thawing relations between Canberra and Beijing after a diplomatic deep freeze.

After days of speculation, China’s foreign ministry announced on Thursday night Canberra and Beijing’s foreign affairs ministers would meet on the sidelines of the G20 in Indonesia for the first time since 2019. Friday’s meeting was later confirmed by Australian officials.

Wong signalled publicly in Singapore on Wednesday she was open to a conversation with her Chinese counterpart at the G20. She said both countries had an interest in “stabilising the relationship” but Australia’s foreign affairs minister also warned any durable rapprochement would require the removal of Beijing’s “coercive” trade sanctions against a variety of exports.

Australia has complained about China’s trade sanctions against a range of exports including meat, crayfish, timber and coal, and is currently pursuing trade disputes in the World Trade Organization over anti-dumping tariffs on Australian wine and barley.

Chinese officials signalled before the federal election on 21 May they would seek talks with a new Australian government of either political persuasion. In the week leading up to the election, diplomatic sources told Guardian Australia they saw “a good opportunity” to ease tensions in the period after the vote.

Since the Albanese government was elected in May, Australia and China have gradually reopened lines of high-level communication. Australia’s deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, met China’s defence minister in Singapore in June.

The June meeting was the first talks between Australia and China’s defence ministers in more than two years. Marles used the meeting with Wei Fenghe to raise concerns about a Chinese fighter plane’s dangerous interception of a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea region on 26 May.

The trade minister, Don Farrell, has asked to meet his counterpart, Wang Wentao, but was unable to do so when the two ministers attended a meeting of the World Trade Organization in June.

While Wong and Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, have repeatedly emphasised the importance of China removing trade sanctions to stabilising the relationship, Farrell struck a more conciliatory note in an interview with Guardian Australia this week.

“So at the moment the plan is to proceed with those [disputes],” he said. “Obviously if the opportunity arises to have a different set of discussions, whereby we can nut out a compromise situation, then I’d be fully supportive of going down that track.

“At the moment it’s the WTO process, that’s the proper way that these issues should be determined. But, if an alternative way emerges, then we’ll certainly be happy to look at that.”

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While communications channels appear to have reopened at ministerial levels, significant irritants remain in the relationship. The new Labor government has also doubled down on criticisms of Beijing in public.

In a major foreign policy speech in Singapore on Wednesday night, Wong declared pointedly the Indo-Pacific region and the world were “now looking at Beijing’s actions in relation to Ukraine”.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister said China had an obligation as “a great power, a permanent member of the security council, and with its no limits partnership with Russia” to exert influence with Vladimir Putin. If China was prepared to do that, that “would do a great deal to build confidence in our own region”, she said.

Ahead of Friday’s meeting of G20 foreign ministers, Wong also told reporters Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, would get a frosty reception in Bali.

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She said she would not telegraph through the media “precisely what we’re doing but I will say this: first, we will be making very clear, collectively, our views about Russia’s position and Russia’s behaviour”.

“I also want to acknowledge and congratulate my [Indonesian] counterpart, foreign minister Retno Marsudi, on inviting Ukraine,” Wong said. “That will be an important moment.

“That will be a very important moment to have Ukraine speak to the G20 in front of all of us, including Russia, about the effects on its people, on the Ukrainian people, men, women and children, of the consequences of the Russian invasion.”

In an interview with Sky News on Thursday, Albanese said the Russian president would also face blowback from his peers when G20 leaders meet in Bali in November.

“The world needs to send a very clear message about how we regard him and his behaviour towards undermining the rules-based order, undermining the UN charter, being responsible for the war crimes that are being committed in Ukraine,” the prime minister said.

Albanese said he would be treating Putin with “the contempt that he deserves”.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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