Beijing offers pandas as ties with Australia thaw

China's Premier Li Qiang has offered to send Australia two new pandas during his visit to Adelaide Zoo.

The new pandas will replace the zoo's existing pandas, named Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who are "friendly messengers of China-Australia relations," Mr Li Said.

Mr Li's arrival in Australia on a four-day trip is the first by a Chinese leader in seven years, marking improving ties between the two countries.

Both China and Australia will see the visit as central to addressing outstanding trade and consular issues.

Mr Li said while Wang Wang and Fu Ni would return to their hometown by the end of the year, he promised that "China will soon provide another pair of pandas that are equally beautiful, lively, cute and younger to the Adelaide Park [Zoo].

A practice that dates back as far as the Tang Dynasty, which ruled from 618 through 907 CE, panda diplomacy – or sending pandas as diplomatic gifts – has long been an instrument of China's diplomatic efforts.

China is seeking to increase its influence in the South Pacific, expanding security and economic ties with island states that are historically allied with Australia.

This has been a point of tension between the nations for years, but bilateral relations hit a low point when the former Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, called for an international inquiry in 2020 into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.

Beijing's answer was to impose high tariffs, including on Australian wine.

Mr Li's Australian hosts also took him to a winery during his visit - an apparent reminder that Beijing has only recently lifted the tariffs on wine.

On his arrival in Adelaide on Saturday, Mr Li heralded a thaw in the diplomatic rift.

He said: "Mutual respect, seeking common ground while shelving differences and mutually beneficial cooperation" are key to the relationship.

But while ties between the countries seem to be improving since the Labour party took power in Australia in 2022, differences still remain.

They include the removal of the remaining trade barriers and the release of imprisoned Australian democracy blogger Yang Hengjun, who was arrested at Guangzhou airport in 2019.

On Monday, Mr Li will be in Canberra for a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Mr Albanese is expected to bring up the case of Mr Yang, who was given a suspended death sentence on espionage charges in February.

As Mr Li engages in trade and panda diplomacy in Australia, Mr Yang's supporters released a statement on Sunday, saying Beijing's High Court had reviewed and upheld the lower court's sentence.

"Our most immediate concern is that Yang's medical conditions remain serious and unaddressed [...] we urge Prime Minister Albanese to use his meeting with Premier Li Qiang to directly demand that Yang be released on medical parole".