Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne is in Beijing on an official visit that appears to mark a thaw in relations between the Asia-Pacific powers.
Relations have been decidedly frosty for the past two years; China reacted angrily to allegations of undue influence in Australian affairs, while Australia objected to a Chinese campaign to lay the groundwork for military bases in Pacific Island countries.
Facing a trade war with the United States, Beijing seems willing to overlook its differences with Canberra. China is already Australia’s largest trading partner and expanded ties may help to make up for American losses. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham is also on the trip to Beijing after an earlier stop in Shanghai.
And there’s been a political change in Canberra as well. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull regularly accused the Chinese Communist Party of seeking undue influence in Australian politics, in its university system, and in the large Chinese community in Australia. New laws designed to counter foreign influence were enacted this past summer, and the rhetoric eased on both sides after Turnbull was replaced as Prime Minister by Scott Morrison in August.
Even so, important differences remain on the South China Sea and over China’s expanding role in the South Pacific. In what’s seen as a counter, Australia announced plans to develop a joint naval base with Papua New Guinea on Manus Island.
Asked to comment, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang called on Australia to drop what he called its “cold war attitude,” and to recognize that no one country has a sphere of influence in the region.