China’s premier is about to visit Australia for the first time in 7 years – what can we expect?

Chinese Premier Li Qiang is visiting Australia from June 15 to 18.

Author


  • Melissa Conley Tyler

    Melissa Conley Tyler is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Honorary Fellow, Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne

It is the first visit to Australia by a Chinese premier in seven years, and signals a further thawing of the once-frosty relations between the two countries.

Who is Li Qiang?

The premier leads the State Council and is ranked second in the seven-member governing Politburo. Only President Xi Jinping, as the head of the Chinese Community Party, outranks him.

In the same way as both our head of government (prime minister) and head of state (governor-general) are active in international diplomacy, both Li and Xi conduct international visits.

In recent months, the premier has attended the G20, World Economic Forum and a trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea. Previous premier Li Keqiang visited Australia in 2017.

An official visit at this level requires the utmost in diplomatic niceties. Formally, it returns the visit Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made to China late last year.

What will the premier be doing?

In Canberra, the focus will be on set pieces befitting the visit of a leader of a a major world power (although I assume nothing we do will top Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosting Albanese for a pre-cricket lap of honour in a golden chariot).

There will be a full ceremonial welcome, including a military display and visit to Governor-General David Hurley. This is the protocol and symbolism due any official visit.

On the political side, the premier will co-chair the ninth China-Australia Annual Leaders’ Meeting and address parliament on June 16. Xi addressed parliament in 2014 (followed the next day by Modi – echoing the memorable occasion in 2003 when US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao gave speeches within a day of each other).

Xi has famously visited all Australian states – he joked he should “get a certificate for that” following his visit to Tasmania in 2014.

Li will be spending time in Adelaide (to visit the pandas and lunch with relieved wine exporters) and Perth (for trade promotion and a Chinese community visit) before he continues on to Malaysia.

Just as we’re used to our prime minister bringing business delegations on his travels, China sees the visit as an opportunity to promote business and investment links.

The premier will visit a lithium refinery at Kwinana (a joint venture with Chinese-owned Tianqi Lithium), along with a Fortescue facility. He will join business leaders at an Australia-China CEO roundtable organised by the Business Council of Australia.

It’s a reminder that, just as in Australia, China’s leaders have an all-consuming focus on improving economic growth.

Former diplomat Jocelyn Chey notes that, given his background promoting entrepreneurial and commercial development, Li will likely take a keen interest in the economic potential of greater interaction in industry and commerce.

Will there be major announcements?

Probably not. I’m expecting more protocol and relationship-building.

Essentially the work has been done beforehand to enable the visit to happen. The Australian and Chinese foreign ministers met in Canberra in March, the defence ministers met in Singapore earlier this month and Trade Minister Don Farrell has been busy working on trade restrictions, with recent announcements made on barley and wine. (Lobster is pretty much the last remaining industry facing trade barriers.)

To a great extent, the Albanese government has reached its goal of “stabilising” relations. This visit is more about exploring what else might be possible in the relationship.

Many will be listening carefully to Li’s messaging, which might well be subtle. In an opaque political system, pronouncements at the highest level will be parsed for hints about policy and direction.

The Chinese people are one of the most important audiences for t
Australia will be hoping for a continuation of the messaging that it is back on the “friendly” country list. A sense that Australia was “not so friendly, even hostile” had a negative impact on many small decisions by a range of actors. The fact that Li’s daughter studied in Australia might be mentioned.

Continuing areas of disagreement

While those involved in protocol will always wish to reduce controversy, it is inevitable the Chinese premier will face ferocious media questions and likely demonstrations, for example by Uighur, Falun Gong and Hong Kong protesters.

Albanese has vowed to raise issues of concern during Li’s visit in line with his oft-repeated: “We will co-operate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.”

This will include human rights issues, including the death sentence passed on Australian citizen Yang Hengjun earlier this year. Albanese will likely again mention his concern about Chinese action against Australian personnel in the Yellow Sea enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea, along with other long-standing areas of disagreement between the two countries.

Diplomacy in action

Most of all, the premier’s visit will show that China and Australia are able to have a “normal” diplomatic relationship after the years of “deep freeze“.

It will illustrate the value of diplomacy – not as an end in itself – but as a way to communicate: to put forward your view, attempt to resolve differences and try to influence.

In the relationship between China and Australia, the differences are many. The UTS:ACRI/BIDA Poll released this week shows just how deep Australians’ mistrust of China continues to be. A state visit will not be able to paper this over.

But compared to the years when Australia had no way to communicate with or influence China, this is a better situation – and more in line with other countries.

As Australia seeks to manage relations with China – in line with its national interest and support for global rules – diplomacy provides tools to maximise the positives and limit the negatives of a perennially important but difficult relationship.

The Conversation

Melissa Conley Tyler is Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D) which receives funding from the Australian Civil-Military Centre and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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