By Phil Mercer
April 12, 2023
FILE - Ma Zhaoxu, China's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, talks during a press briefing at the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing on April 22, 2021
SYDNEY — The most senior Chinese government official to visit Australia in six years has arrived for talks in Sydney.
Ma Zhaoxu’s visit is the latest sign that diplomatic ties between Canberra and Beijing are easing after years of friction. The visit by Ma, China's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, comes as the two countries agree to resolve a dispute over imports of Australian barley.
Ma will hold talks Wednesday with Australian government officials.
It is the first visit by a senior Chinese official since bilateral relations started to deteriorate in 2017 over growing concerns about alleged Chinese interference in Australia’s domestic affairs.
There followed further disagreements about Taiwan, freedom of navigation in the contested South China Sea and the origins of COVID-19. China also imposed restrictions on a range of Australian exports.
In May 2020, China placed sweeping tariffs on Australian barley for five years, disrupting a trade worth $1 billion a year.
David Olssen, the national president of the Australia China Business Council, a business grouping, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Wednesday that Ma’s visit illustrates a shift in China’s foreign policy.
“I think it is clear that the strategies that China has adopted in recent times against Australia have not worked and that combined with, you know, a quite hostile environment for China globally at the moment has caused China to rethink its priorities,” said Olssen. “It wants to talk to the world. It wants to open up again. It needs to do that from an economic point of view.”
Ma’s visit coincides with Australia agreeing to suspend its appeal to the World Trade Organization against China’s punitive tariffs on Australian barley, which Beijing has agreed to review.
Officials in Canberra have said they were confident that China would reverse the tariffs during the three-month assessment.
“I want to make clear that if this agreement is successful in providing a pathway for the lifting of duties on barley, the Australian government would expect a similar process to be followed in relation to the trade barriers which exist on Australian wine,” Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong told reporters in Canberra Tuesday.
China is, by far, Australia’s biggest trading partner. China’s demand for natural resources, most notably iron ore — a key ingredient in steel making — has underpinned Australia’s recent prosperity.
Australia’s center-left government — elected in May 2022 — has made a concerted effort to ease tensions with Beijing. Analysts say a meeting between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Indonesia last November was a catalyst for better relations.