Australia's Albanese, China's Li hold talks on trade, rights

By Kirsty Needham

CANBERRA (Reuters) -Australia and China will take steps to improve military communication to avoid incidents, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said after meeting Premier Li Qiang on Monday, in the first visit to the country by a Chinese premier in seven years.

The visit by Li, China's top-ranked official after President Xi Jinping, marks a stabilisation in relations between the U.S. security ally and the world's second-biggest economy, after a frosty period of Beijing blocking $20 billion in Australian exports and friction over defence encounters.

"One of the very practical measures that we spoke about was improving military to military communication so as to avoid incidents," Albanese told reporters in Canberra after the meeting.

In an incident last month, a Chinese airforce jet dropped flares near an Australian defence helicopter in international airspace over the Yellow Sea, which Australia said was a dangerous encounter.

It was the second defence incident in six months to mar growing rapprochement between the two countries after years of strained relations.

Albanese told reporters he had "raised our issues in the Pacific", a reference to Canberra's concern over Beijing's growing security ambitions in nearby Pacific Islands, as well as the case of China-born Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who was handed a suspended death sentence by a Beijing court.

Beginning with some panda and wine diplomacy on Sunday, Li is on a four-day visit.

"This dialogue has allowed us to build a deeper awareness of our respective interests," Albanese said earlier, noting Australia and China had complementary economies and shared interests in addressing climate change.

Li told reporters the leaders held a "candid, in-depth and fruitful meeting and reached a lot of consensus".

The two countries would expand cooperation in energy and mining, and China would include Australia in its visa waiver programme, he added.

"We both stressed the importance of maintaining communication and coordination to jointly safeguard peace and prosperity in the region and beyond," he said.


Protesters and supporters gathered on Monday morning on the lawn outside parliament house in Canberra, where there was a heavy police presence.

Barricades separated Tibetan, Uyghur, Hong Kong and Falun Gong protesters from a large contingent of pro-China supporters.

Tibetan Tenzin Wougyal, 37, a Canberra resident, said he came to show Tibet's culture, religion and language are at risk.

"Australia should be cautious about what it is doing — don't sacrifice human rights for short-term economic business," he said.

Tan Zhu, 50, said he travelled from Sydney to welcome Li to Canberra.

"The relationship with Australia has become much better. That's very positive," he said.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was jailed for three years in Beijing on national security charges until her release in October, was among media covering the meeting.

Chinese officials appeared to block her from camera view by standing in front of her, video footage on several Australian media outlets showed. "Maybe they didn't want that for the domestic audience," Cheng told Sky News Australia, where she is a presenter.

China's embassy did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. Albanese said he hadn't seen it, but later told reporters it was "important that people be allowed to participate fully and that's what should happen in this building or anywhere else in Australia".

Trade between Australia and China reached A$327 billion ($216 billion) last year as Beijing's trade blocks eased.

On Tuesday the two leaders will hold a business roundtable in the mining state of Western Australia. Australia is the biggest supplier of iron ore to China and China has been an investor in Australian mining projects.

Li's visit raises the issue of whether Australia will continue to accept high levels of Chinese investment in its critical minerals sector, as Western security allies push to reduce reliance on Beijing for the rare earths vital to electric vehicles. Australia last month blocked several Chinese investors from increasing stakes in a rare earths miner on national interest grounds.

"It is hoped that the Australian side will provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese enterprises," Li said in comments reported by Xinhua.

($1 = 1.5142 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lewis Jackson in Sydney and Peter Hobson in Canberra; additional reporting by Bernard Orr in Beijing. Editing by Lincoln Feast, Michael Perry and Ros Russell)