China-Australia thaw to be tested in Beijing today

Beijing: It is the same state guesthouse where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was entertained by Chinese president Xi Jinping as Kim made his first secret visit abroad in March.

That was a significant thaw for China. Now the Australian thaw will be tested at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.

Bound for China: Marise Payne.

Bound for China: Marise Payne. Credit:Andrew Meares

Foreign affairs minister Marise Payne arrived to a chilly Beijing late on Wednesday evening, the first day of winter in the ancient Chinese solar calendar.

Today Payne will attend the fifth Australia-China foreign and strategic dialogue, the highest level bilateral meeting to be held on Chinese soil this year.

Until this week, no Australian ministers had set foot on mainland China in 2018 for any official event. There has been no visit by an Australian foreign affairs minister in almost three years.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi could test Marise Payne.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi could test Marise Payne.Credit:AP

Payne, two months into the job, is being hosted by Wang Yi, China’s foreign affairs minister for five years, who was elevated to the State Council this year.

When the pair first met at the United Nations in New York in September, there were positive words from both Australia and China, and Wang said he hoped the relationship could get back on track.

But Wang has a record of testing new Australian foreign ministers on his home turf.

In December 2013 in Beijing, Julie Bishop was upbraided by Wang in front of the media for her “irresponsible” comments about China’s actions in the East China Sea. It was described by seasoned reporters as an unprecedented public attack.

The rejection of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei may come up as an issue.

The rejection of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei may come up as an issue.Credit:AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Several years on, the South China Sea issue has evolved its own careful, diplomatic language on both sides, so is unlikely to elicit surprises in the meeting between Payne and Wang today.

There are new sore points in the relationship that are closer to home – Australia’s noisy domestic political debate over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, foreign investment restrictions, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ban on Huawei participating in the 5G network.

The 5G decision has reverberated around the world, with Australia creating a precedent for saying no to the largest telecommunications equipment maker on national security grounds.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s decision on Wednesday not to allow the CKI Group’s $US13 billion takeover of the APA gas pipelines, because it would create undue concentration of foreign ownership in a single company, is less likely to worry Beijing. The Chinese government has
been publicly displeased with CKI’s billionaire founder, Hong Kong’s most famous tycoon, Li Ka-shing, since 2015.

Instead, it is Carrie Lam’s Hong Kong government that will be rattled by the message Canberra’s decision sends to the world about Hong Kong’s financial and economic autonomy. Trade minister Simon Birmingham is in Hong Kong for meetings on Thursday.

Wang was in Port Moresby last week, outlining China’s vision for “South South” cooperation and its aid program in the Pacific, and rejecting “Western countries hype” about debt burdens created by the Belt and Road Initiative.

Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is reportedly to unveil a $2 billion Australian infrastructure fund for the Pacific, as a counter to China’s money pot. An interesting discussion point for Payne.

Tomorrow China’s most senior diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi holds strategic talks in Washington with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US defence secretary Jim Mattis, after they were postponed last month at Washington’s request.

A former defence minister, Payne will be aware of how closely the Morrison Government’s thaw with China is being watched by security ally the United States.

As Payne flew into Beijing on Wednesday evening, the nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times posted a cartoon to its social media account of a kangaroo looking nervously over its shoulder at Uncle Sam.

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