China, Australia eye first leaders’ meeting in years

SYDNEY – China and Australia could hold top-level talks for the first time since 2017, with senior figures from both countries this week signalling a willingness to break the years-long impasse.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Wednesday that he would “welcome” such a meeting, when asked about the potential for talks on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in November in Indonesia.

“I’m open to dialogue with anyone at any time, particularly with leaders of other nations,” he told reporters.

The prime minister’s comments came after China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, told ABC on Tuesday that he would “love” to see Chinese President Xi Jinping meet with Mr Albanese.

Mr Xi last met an Australian prime minister in 2017, when he held private talks with centrist Malcolm Turnbull on the G-20 sidelines in Hamburg.

While China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, relations between the two countries have soured over the past five years – and all but collapsed after Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

Beijing has since introduced punitive sanctions on a string of Australian imports and top-level contacts have been frozen.

“When there is really a wish and will from both sides, I would love to see a top-level meeting between our two countries,” Mr Xiao said.

He said that “nobody should set pre-conditions for the other side” before such a meeting to occur.

But to ensure it was “a constructive one, rather than a destructive one”, he added that a “favourable atmosphere” would need to be created after years of tension.

Ministerial-level contacts between Australia and China resumed in June after a two-year hiatus and following the formation of Mr Albanese’s centre-left government.

Recently, Beijing’s ambitions in the Pacific have riled Canberra as have China’s arrests of Australians, including journalist Cheng Lei.

Mr Xiao told ABC he had “sympathy (for Lei’s) family, her kids, her relatives who are faced with such a difficult situation”.

He said he was trying to facilitate easier access to her children, who had not spoken to their mother in two years. AFP