China Premier Li starts Australia trip with Adelaide panda announcement, winery visit

(Reuters) -China Premier Li Qiang made a low-key start on Sunday to a four-day trip to Australia with visits to a South Australian winery and Adelaide Zoo, where he announced Beijing would provide two new pandas after the current pair go home later this year.

Li, China's second-highest ranked official and the first Chinese premier to visit Australia in seven years, is due to meet Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday. He arrived in the South Australia state capital late on Saturday, saying bilateral relations were "back on track".

China, Australia's largest trade partner, imposed restrictions on a raft of Australian agricultural and mineral exports in 2020 during a diplomatic dispute that has now largely eased.

On Sunday, Li's first official stop was to visit a pair of pandas on loan from China to Adelaide's zoo, where Australian Broadcasting Corp television showed crowds gathered, some waving Chinese flags, while others held signs that read "No more panda propaganda".

At the zoo, Li announced the pandas would return to China in November and the zoo would get to select two new giant pandas, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

The pandas had "become envoys of friendship between China and Australia, and a symbol of the profound friendship between the two peoples", Li said, according to a statement from the Chinese embassy.

"China is ready to continue with the cooperative research with Australia on the conservation of giant pandas, and hopes that Australia will continue to be an amicable home for giant pandas," Li added.

The pandas, Fu Ni and Wang Wang, have been at the zoo since 2009 but have not successfully bred, the ABC reported.

Li later attended an event with South Australia wine exporters, who until recently have been shut out of the Chinese market in a dispute that suspended A$20 billion ($13 billion) in Australian agriculture and mineral exports last year.

Speaking at the winery in the Adelaide suburb of Magill, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the venue was chosen "because of course one of the impediments that has been removed is the export of Australian wine and we welcome that".

Earlier on Sunday, Wong said Li's visit was "really important" in showing stabilised ties between the two major trading partners.

"It comes after two years of very deliberate, very patient work by this government to bring about a stabilisation of the relationship," Wong told the ABC.

On the pandas, Wong, who lives in Adelaide, said the animals "have been a great part of the lives of many Adelaide families".

On Monday, Li will visit the capital Canberra for a meeting with Albanese.

During the talks, the prime minister is expected to bring up the case of Australian writer Yang Hengjun who was given a suspended death sentence on espionage charges in February, as well as an incident last month where a Chinese military jet dropped flares near an Australian defence helicopter.

Li's final stop on Tuesday will be in resource-rich mining state Western Australia. Australia is the biggest supplier of iron ore to China, which has been an investor in Australian mining projects, though some recent Chinese investment in critical minerals has been blocked by Australia on national interest grounds.

Li arrived from New Zealand, where he highlighted Chinese demand for its agricultural products.

Canberra and Wellington are seeking to balance trade with regional security concerns over China's ambitions in the Pacific Islands and on issues including human rights the contested South China Sea.

(Reporting by Sam McKeith and James Redmayne in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Miral Fahmy.)