China’s Foreign Minister told Penny Wong that inflammatory statements by the Coalition government soured diplomatic relations that led to Australia being cut off from official communications, according to a statement issued from Beijing on Sunday.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Senator Wong met while both were at this weekend’s G20 Foreign Ministers’ summit in Bali.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry-issued rundown of the meeting published on Sunday suggested a cordial exchange that could be the strongest signal yet that tattered ties are improving.
This contrasted with Senator Wong’s more cautious recap directly after the meeting.
“Wang Yi said the root cause of the difficulties in bilateral relations over the past few years was the former Australian government’s insisting on regarding China as a rival or even a threat, allowing its words and deeds being irresponsible against China,” a recount of the meeting provided by Beijing said.
Mr Wang was said to have described the relationship as one that presents both “challenges and opportunities” but that developing healthy ties would be of benefit to citizens of both countries and help “safeguard the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”.
“China is ready to re-examine, recalibrate, and reinvigorate bilateral ties in the spirit of mutual respect, and strive to bring bilateral relations back on the right track,” the statement said in comments attributed to Mr Wang.
Four issues were listed as areas in which Beijing hoped for improved relations:
- Seeing China as a partner, not a rival
- Seeking common ground and reserving differences as a “way to get along together”
- Not targeting nor being controlled by a third party (Chinese state media commentary has recently suggested Australia is led by America or NATO)
- Building “positive and pragmatic social foundations and public support”.
The Chinese statement attributed to Ms Wong comments noting the extensive economic ties between China and Australia and described the nations as “strategic partners”.
Senator Wong was listed as having said that Australia did not intend on “joining the containment of China” according to Beijing’s account, which has not been verified independently.
“Australia will, on the basis of mutual respect and in a rational and pragmatic manner, maintain constructive contacts and exchanges between the two sides, enhance mutual trust, expand equal-footed co-operation and remove obstacles in bilateral relations,” the statement said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was contacted for its response to Beijing’s account but did not offer comment.
Earlier, a cautiously optimistic Senator Wong has emerged from the meeting with Mr Wang, saying “the first step” had been taken to repair the damage to the relationship.
The prolonged detention of two Australians in China and punitive trade measures were among the subjects Senator Wong said had been discussed on the sidelines of the summit.
“We spoke frankly and listened carefully to each other’s priorities and concerns,” the Foreign Minister said.
“I raised Australia’s concerns about a range of bilateral, regional, trade and consular issues.
“We have our differences, but it is in both our countries’ interests for the relationship to be stabilised.”
Senator Wong described the meeting as important, but also cautioned that stabilising the countries’ relationship would take time and effort.
“We both recognised it is a first step for both our nations,” she told reporters in Bali.
“We’ve got a path to walk and we’ll see if it can lead to a better place between the two countries.”
China has issued trade sanctions against many Australian products including wine, beef, coal and lobsters.
It has also signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands and has sought similar deals with other Pacific nations.
Relations with China reached a nadir not long after former Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for a global inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
Then Prime Minister Scott Morrison said any such inquiry would need to be conducted by World Health Organisation officials who could have the same powers as weapons inspectors, in a remark that was viewed as provocative.
The current Liberal leader and former Defence Minister Peter Dutton routinely compared China to Nazi Germany, picked a fight over a Chinese ship that was not in Australian waters and, on Anzac Day, said that Australia should “prepare for war”.
Mr Wang and the Australian Foreign Minister discussed the Pacific region. Beijing was ready to identify possible areas of “win-win” co-operation in a region where the countries have worked previously in tripartite partnerships, according to its statement.
At a press conference last week Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the world was not a binary choice between democracies and autocracies and said it was not fair to expect Pacific nations to “pick sides” with China.