Australia prime minister seeks end to China’s trade sanctions

Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese pressed Chinese president Xi Jinping to lift punitive export sanctions at a meeting that he called an “important step” towards stabilising ties between the major trading partners.

But at the meeting on Tuesday, the first between leaders of Australia and China in six years, Xi offered no immediate easing of Beijing’s sanctions on products ranging from coal to beef and barley.

The 30-minute encounter on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali marked in itself a limited thawing in ties between Canberra and Beijing.

“I reaffirmed the Australian government’s view that it is in the interests of both sides to continue on the path of stabilising and developing our ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’,” said Albanese, referring to the description of their relationship that Canberra and Beijing adopted in 2014.

Albanese played down the possibility of any early easing of the trade restrictions imposed by China in 2020, but said the two countries had agreed to hold further talks. There were “many steps still to take”, he added.

In a statement on the meeting, China’s foreign ministry did not directly mention the sanctions Beijing imposed after Australia called for an independent investigation into the first Covid-19 outbreak in 2020.

Relations had already been deteriorating over growing Australian concerns about Chinese influence in the country. Australia in 2018 banned Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from its 5G network, a decision Beijing slammed then as “politically motivated”.

At their meeting, Xi told Albanese he hoped Canberra would provide a “sound business environment for Chinese enterprises to invest and operate in Australia”, Chinese state media reported.

Australian exports have boomed since the imposition of the Chinese sanctions, with suppliers of targeted products switching to other markets and China continuing to buy critical products such as iron ore and natural gas that were spared the punitive tariffs.

Xi, who has returned to the world stage after a three-year absence during the pandemic, has drawn praise from US allies for condemning any threatened use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has made repeated warnings about possible use of nuclear weapons as his eight-month invasion of Ukraine falters.

Albanese said he had specifically asked China to exercise its influence on Russia on such threats. “I noted that China has called that out and that is a good thing,” the prime minister told journalists after the meeting.

In a separate meeting with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, Xi also referenced the need to avoid nuclear threats, Rutte said.

“We also spoke . . . about the war in Ukraine. President Xi spoke out against the threat of nuclear weapons; an important message for Russia,” said Rutte in a statement.

However, Xi has not publicly criticised Russia directly over the nuclear threats and the Chinese foreign ministry’s reports of the meetings with Albanese and Rutte did not mention them.

In a meeting with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, Xi reiterated China’s calls for peace talks and a ceasefire in Ukraine.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Bali and Edward White in Seoul