Marise Payne is expected to raise the contentious subjects of trade and human rights when she becomes the first Australian foreign minister to visit China in almost three years.
Senator Payne’s visit to Beijing this week signals a thaw in diplomatic relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner.
“Obviously we have a very substantial relationship, and it works in the interests of both sides,” the minister told ABC radio on Tuesday.
Her visit comes as the United States and China trade blows over trade, intellectual property theft and the South China Sea.
Senator Payne said the stability of the region depends on relations between the two superpowers, which Australia considers its most important partners.
“We want to continue to ensure the strength and vitality of our own relationship with the United States, it’s fundamental to our security,” she said.
“But we can also be strengthening our relations with China.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a major speech on Monday – arguing that countries should not point fingers at others to gloss over their own problems – in what was widely seen as a swipe at US President Donald Trump.
Senator Payne said she was more interested in President Xi’s comments about expanded market access for education and health.
“There was also a commitment made about improving the system of intellectual property protection and enforcement in China,” she said.
This has been a significant concern for foreign businesses, including Australian companies, over a lot of years so we are very pleased to see that signal.”
Senator Payne played down concerns about the Victorian government signing onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Victoria says it consulted the Department of Foreign Affairs before striking the infrastructure agreement last week, but the Commonwealth was kept in the dark.
Senator Payne denied the memorandum of understanding was a source of embarrassment.
“We encourage the states and territories to expand opportunities with China,” she said.
“Any treaty level arrangements, of course, are made at the Commonwealth level.”
Foreign Affairs officials have also recently been in contact with the Chinese government on behalf of Australians with family members in so-called “vocational training” camps.
At least three Australians have been detained and released from the camps in far west China, which may hold as many as one million Muslim Uighurs and members of other ethnic minorities.
Senator Payne said the government had serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang.
“We’ve expressed those concerns directly with the Chinese ambassador in Canberra, and as well to the foreign ministry in Beijing,” she said.
“There will be statements made in the human rights council this week, and I will pursue matters in the course of my discussions in an appropriate way.”