Foreign Minister Marise Payne is likely to face fresh questions in Beijing today about the latest blocking of a major Chinese investment deal in Australia.
- Diplomatic relations between Australia and China have been frosty for well over a year
- The Chinese Government has recently ended a year-long freeze on invitations for Australian MPs to visit
- Marise Payne’s visit is a sign that the relationship may be getting back to normal
Her arrival in the Chinese capital is being seen as a sign that Australia’s relationship with its biggest trading partner is getting back on a more normal footing, after more than a year of political tension.
But Chinese analysts say she will likely be asked to explain Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s announcement that he intends to block a $13 billion Chinese takeover of Australia’s largest gas pipeline business.
The preliminary adverse assessment of the bid by Hong Kong-based CK Asset Holding Limited, based on foreign ownership concerns, comes just months after the Government banned telco Huawei from building part of the 5G network due to national security fears.
“If we continue to have a prosperous economic relationship, we need to have some kind of basic trust with each other”, Peking University’s Jia Qingguo said.
“You can take security measures, but to block commercial transactions on this scale is quite difficult to understand here.”
Australia is not alone in taking a more cautious approach to Chinese investment in strategic sectors, but the timing of the Treasurer’s announcement threatens to overshadow a visit seen as vital to restoring normal ties.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg blocked the $13 billion takeover as it was against the “national interest”. (ABC News: Jed Cooper)
Just this week Australian businesses signed deals and memoranda of understanding (MOUs) worth $15 billion at a major trade expo in Shanghai.
A chamber of commerce survey of Australian businesses in China found two-thirds were optimistic about investing more in China’s economy, despite the recent diplomatic chill.
An observer of the relationship in China, Chen Hong, an Australian specialist at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said a recent change in tone by Australian political leaders prompted China’s government to end a year-long freeze on invitations to visit.
“Even before Malcolm Turnbull left office as Prime Minister, he gave a speech indicating a willingness to reset bilateral relations”, Professor Chen.
“Bill Shorten made a speech at the Lowy Institute also expressing his willingness to improve bilateral relations, and then Scott Morrison gave a speech at the Asia Society, so all those speeches and gestures are very productive and positive.”
Uyghur questions may cause stir
China’s mass detention of Uighur men and women has attracted criticism around the world. (Keystone via AP: Salvatore Di Nolfi)
Marise Payne may also ruffle feathers if she raises concerns about the mass detention of ethnic minority Muslims in China’s far west.
Human rights groups estimate hundreds of thousands of mainly Uyghur and Kazakh men and women are being held without charge or due process in a network of internment camps across Xinjiang province, for the purpose of political indoctrination.
The Department of Foreign Affairs recently revealed three Australian citizens were temporarily among the detainees.
China has defended the program as “preventative” for terrorism, saying the “vocational training centres” provide free job and language education for people at risk of extremism, and that relatives are allowed to visit.
“I think it’s understandable if you raise the issue in private because we have bilateral mechanisms to that, but to make it a big issue in public would be considered a kind of affront to Chinese sovereignty”, said Professor Jia.
Both sides appear keen though to downplay differences during the two-day visit, which is widely seen as a precursor to a meeting between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chinese President Xi Jinping at APEC in Papua New Guinea within the next fortnight.