Chinese premier promises more pandas and urges Australia to put aside differences

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia has focused on positive aspects of the bilateral relationship including shared giant pandas and a rebounding wine trade after he urged both countries to shelve their differences

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Chinese Premier Li Qiang on Sunday promised a new pair of giant pandas to a zoo and urged Australia to set aside its differences with Beijing at the outset of the first visit to the country by China's second-highest ranking leader in seven years.

China's most powerful politician after President Xi Jinping arrived late Saturday in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia state, which has produced most of the Australian wine entering China since crippling tariffs were lifted in March that had effectively ended a 1.2 billion Australian dollar ($790 million) a year trade since 2020.

Li's trip has focused so far on the panda diplomacy, rebounding trade including wine and recovering diplomatic links after China initiated a reset of the relationship in 2022 that had all but collapsed during Australia's previous conservative administration's nine years in power.

Relations tumbled over legislation that banned covert foreign interference in Australian politics, the exclusion of Chinese-owned telecommunications giant Huawei from rolling out the national 5G network due to security concerns, and Australia's call for an independent investigation into the causes of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beijing imposed an array of official and unofficial trade blocks in 2020 on a range of Australian exports including coal, wine, beef, barley and wood that cost up to AU$20 billion ($13 billion) a year.

All the trade bans have now been lifted except for Australian live lobster exports. Trade Minister Don Farrell predicted that impediment would also be lifted soon after Li's visit with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Li’s visit was the result of “two years of very deliberate, very patient work by this government to bring about a stabilization of the relationship and to work towards the removal of trade impediments.”

“We will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must and we will engage in our national interest,” Wong said before joining Li at Adelaide Zoo, which has been home to China-born giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni since 2009.

Li announced that the zoo would be loaned another two pandas after the pair are due to return to China in November.

“China will soon provide another pair of pandas that are equally beautiful, lively, cute and younger to the Adelaide Zoo, and continue the cooperation on giant pandas between China and Australia,” Li said in Mandarin, adding that zoo staff would be invited to "pick a pair.”

Wong thanked Li for ensuring that pandas would remain the zoo's star attraction.

“It’s good for the economy, it’s good for South Australian jobs, it’s good for tourism, and it is a signal of goodwill, and we thank you,” Wong said.

Li's visit is the first to Australia by a Chinese premier in seven years and marks an improvement in relations since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labor Party was elected in 2022.

Li noted that Albanese in November was the first Australian prime minister to visit China since 2016.

“China-Australia relations were back on track after a period of twists and turns," Li said on arrival on Saturday, according to a translation released by the Chinese Embassy in Australia on Sunday. “History has proven that mutual respect, seeking common ground while shelving differences and mutually beneficial cooperation are the valuable experience in growing China-Australia relations."

Hundreds of pro-China demonstrators, human rights protesters and democracy activists gathered outside the zoo before Li’s visit.

Among the protesters was former Hong Kong lawmaker Ted Hui, who fled to Australia three years ago to avoid a prison sentence for his activism. He said the panda offer was a cynical move to soften China's image and to distract from the government's human rights failings.

“It's a public relations move by the Chinese regime and, disappointingly, the Australian government is reciprocating by welcoming him and shaking hands,” Hui said.

Hui said Li showed cowardice by entering the zoo by a rear entrance while most of the protesters and China supporters had gathered at the main entrance. But Hui and other protesters were able to shout slogans at Li from a distance inside the zoo.

Li’s agenda became more contentious after he left Adelaide and arrived in the national capital, Canberra, late Sunday for Parliament House meetings on Monday with Albanese and other political figures. Li will visit a Chinese-controlled lithium processing plant in resource-rich Western Australia state on Tuesday.

Albanese has said he will raise with Li recent clashes between the two countries' militaries in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea that Australia argues endangered Australian personnel.

Albanese will also raise the fate of China-born Australian democracy blogger Yang Hengjun, who was given a suspended death sentence by a Beijing court in February. Australia is also concerned for Hong Kong-Australia dual national Gordon Ng, who was among 14 pro-democracy activists convicted by a Hong Kong court last month for national security offenses.

Li’s visit to Tianqi Lithium Energy Australia’s processing plant south of the Western Australia capital of Perth will underscore China’s interest in investing in critical minerals. The plant produces battery-grade lithium hydroxide for electric vehicles.

Australia shares U.S. concerns over China's dominance in the critical minerals, which are essential components in the world's transition to renewable energy sources.

Citing Australia’s national interests, Treasurer Jim Chalmers recently ordered five Chinese-linked companies to divest their shares in the rare earth mining company, Northern Minerals.

Asked if Chinese companies could invest in processing critical minerals in Australia, Wong replied that Australia’s foreign investment framework was “open to all.”

“We want to grow our critical minerals industry,” Wong said.

Australia is the second stop of Li's tour after New Zealand, and will end in Malaysia.

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AP video producer Caroline Chen and writer Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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