Senior Chinese diplomat heads to Australia and Fiji to pave way for Xi-Albanese talks in Beijing


China’s vice-foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu will visit Australia and Fiji this week, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Monday.

The visit by Ma, a former ambassador to Australia, was expected to stabilise ties between the two countries ahead of an anticipated visit to Beijing this year by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

The South China Morning Post reported last week that Albanese may visit Beijing in September and October to mark the 50th anniversary of the first trip to China by an Australian prime minister.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday that Ma’s would hold a new round of political consultations on his trip to Australia this week. Ma would also travel to Fiji, Wang said.

The visit comes as the China-Australia relationship has begun to thaw. Over the past few years, China-Australia relations deteriorated over human rights in Xinjiang, a call for investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, national security concerns and heightened trade disputes.

The situation has improved since November, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met Albanese on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali. In those first formal talks between the nations’ top leaders in six years, both expressed their willingness to stabilise relations. Trade was also on Albanese’s agenda.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited Beijing and met China’s then foreign minister Wang Yi in December. Both sides agreed to step up talks on issues such as trade, security and human rights.

China has also aimed to improve cooperation with Pacific Island nations in recent years as its rivalry with the United States in the region has heated up.

In February, Qian Bo, China’s Ambassador to Fiji since 2018, was appointed the Chinese government’s first special envoy on Pacific Islands affairs, an elevated post that will see him taking charge of pressing diplomatic issues.

Weeks before the assignment, Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka cancelled the country’s police training and exchange agreement with China, overturning a decision taken by a previous administration.
Rabuka said Chinese state security personnel would no longer continue working with its police force because of the nations’ “different systems”.

China had sought to “expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly combat transnational crime and establish a dialogue mechanism on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation” in the region.

But China failed to win over all Pacific nations with its regional security cooperation proposal.

At a China-Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in May last year, former Fijian prime minister and foreign minister Frank Bainimarama said the ministers were prioritising consensus.

“Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, whose job is being lost to the pandemic, or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities,” he said.