China pledges new pandas, Wong vows firm stance on ties

Holly Hales and Aaron Sheldrick |

China’s Premier Li Qiang has promised a panda swap in Adelaide, while Foreign Minister Penny Wong is vowing to advocate for an Australian writer languishing ill in a Chinese jail and remain firm on Pacific region security issues.

Senator Wong’s comments came after China’s second-most powerful leader declared on arrival in Adelaide on Saturday that the relationship was “back on track after a period of twists and turns”.

On the first visit by a Chinese premier in seven years, Mr Li is set for talks with Australia’s political leadership after a zoo visit and some business bonhomie with winemakers toasting the end of a ban on their products.

China's Premier Li Qiang
Adelaide Zoo is getting a new pair of pandas amid hopes the pair will breed. (Asanka Ratnayake/AAP PHOTOS)

Hundreds of people gathered outside the zoo before Mr Li’s arrival, with some protesting and some supporting the Chinese regime.

Inside the zoo Mr Li continued decades of Chinese diplomatic tradition and announced two new pandas will be loaned to Adelaide Zoo, before attending a luncheon with winemakers. 

But Senator Wong was focused on geopolitics and human rights issues while on ABC Insiders on Sunday.

The imprisonment of Mr Yang, who received a suspended death sentence in February and remains in jail, and the targeting of Australian residents by Hong Kong authorities are thorny points in the relationship. 

“We will continue to advocate where ever we are able and we will continue to advocate for appropriate medical treatment” for Mr Yang, Senator Wong said when asked whether she would raise his ill health with Mr Li.

She reiterated Australia’s long-standing position on Taiwan, describing it as “one of the riskier flashpoints” in the world.

China’s military has stepped up training exercises around Taiwan, as it reinforces the long-held Chinese position that the island is part of the mainland and may be taken by force.

Reaffirming the status quo on Taiwan, Senator Wong said Australia would continue to push for calm in the region and press its claims with Beijing.

“We will co-operate where we can, we will disagree where we must and we will engage in our national interest,” Senator Wong said. 

Away from the Taiwan flashpoint, the growing number of incidents between Australian and Chinese militaries has been a source of strain in the relationship in recent times.

When asked whether she would raise the incidents and wider Pacific security issues directly with Li, Senator Wong said Australia would remain consistent.

“We will deal with those issues and many other issues, where we do have to navigate a set of differences of views between how China operates in this region and the sort of region Australia and many others want to engage in.”

She also took a swipe at the opposition for what she said was “leaving the field” in the Pacific region during their time in power till 2022.

“We are now in a position where Australia is a partner of choice but the opportunity to be the only partner of choice has been lost by Mr Dutton and his colleagues. That’s the reality.”

“This government understands the importance of engaging in the Pacific. We understand it matters to Australian stability, security and prosperity.”

In advance of Mr Li’s visit, the opposition warned the prime minister not to go easy on Mr Li.

But the commodities Australia exports to China to produce the steel, copper and aluminium that form the backbone of its economy add an important dimension to relations.

Uyghur and counter China protesters
Pro and anti-Chinese protesters gathered outside Adelaide Zoo. (Asanka Ratnayake/AAP PHOTOS)

Beijing has gradually dropped restrictions on exports, with less than $1 billion worth of trade restrictions remaining on rock lobsters and two meatworks.

Around 350 winemakers, mostly South Australian, are now selling their products back into the Chinese market. 

Trade Minister Don Farrell, who is a South Australian winemaker himself, said business was booming again for the nation’s wine producers.

“In the last month, since the ban on wine was lifted, we’ve sold $86 million of wine into China,” Senator Farrell said on Sunday Agenda.  

Mr Li will travel to Canberra on Sunday afternoon where he will be met by Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.

A trip to Perth will make up the latter part of the visit which is taking place as clouds hang over the two countries’ broader relationship.