Chinese premier visits Australia to expand bilateral ties

CANBERRA: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is due to arrive in the Australian capital Canberra on Wednesday on a mission to expand bilateral ties as President Donald Trump proposes an "America First" overhaul of global trade.

Li's visit to Australia and New Zealand is the first by a Chinese premier in 11 years. He is also the most senior Chinese official to visit Australia since 2014 when President Xi Jinping finalized a bilateral free trade deal with Australia which started in 2015.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he and Li would announce the next stage of the pact during the four-day Australian visit.

"Both our economies are in the midst of important transitions, creating new opportunities for collaboration in services, innovation and investment," Turnbull said in a statement.

China is Australia's biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade exceeding $107 billion and bilateral investment exceeding $100 billion. Trump's election promises to change the dynamics of global trade.

Australia is an enthusiastic advocate of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trading bloc of Pacific Rim countries that the Obama administration had committed the United States to joining. China never intended to join.

As well as pulling the United States out of that pact, Trump — who campaigned on an "America First" platform — has also said he will renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. Australia's 12-year-old free trade deal with the United States could also be reviewed.

Trump's election has raised concerns of a new era of protectionism in international trade.

Damien Kingsbury, a Deakin University expert on international politics, said he did not expect the two leaders would discuss how to deal with the United States, Australia's most important strategic partner, under the Trump administration.

"It may be raised by China, but Australia would be much too circumspect to discuss its own relationship with the United States," Kingsbury said.

"It would be profoundly irresponsible to talk about the problems that our key strategic partner is having with a country which is arguably their key strategic opponent," he added.

Chinese industrial demand has created a resurgence in prices of Australia's biggest exports: iron ore and coal.

But the rapidly changing bilateral relationship has raised concerns in China, Australia and the United States.

Beijing criticized Australia last year after it blocked Chinese bidders from a Sydney electricity network, Ausgrid, and from buying an enormous cattle empire, S. Kidman & Co. Ltd. The government decided the sales would not be in Australia's national interests.

Former President Barack Obama raised questions with Turnbull in 2015 after Australia allowed a Chinese company, Landbridge, to secure a 99-year lease over the strategically important Port of Darwin, which has become a U.S. Marines training hub in northern Australia. Turnbull said Australian defense and security officials determined the 506 million Australian dollar ($390 million) deal did not threaten national interests.

An Australian parliamentary committee this month recommended a ban on political donations from foreign companies and individuals as concerns grow over Chinese political influence in Australia. The Obama administration had called for reform.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop raised eyebrows in Beijing during a speech in Singapore this month when she said China can only reach its full economic potential if it embraces democracy.

China's Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters on Beijing on Tuesday his government hoped Australia will continue to look beyond the countries' ideological differences and focus on bilateral business ties and other forms of cooperation.

China wishes to "make China-Australia business cooperation more diverse and more sustainable," Zheng said.