PM treading a fine line on China visit

He will attend the ‘Australia in China’ forum, where over a thousand Australian businesses are looking to capitalise on China’s booming consumer demand and hold official bilateral talks in Beijing.


Tensions in South China Sea remain a sore point in relations, and all eyes are on Malcolm Turnbull to see how he’ll navigate Australia’s increasingly complex relationship with its biggest trading partner.

At Australia Week in China everything from healthcare services to healthy foods is being promoted.

More than a thousand Australian business leaders have arrived, making up Australia’s largest ever trade delegation.

They hope to feed China’s growing hunger for premium services and products.

Chuyang Liu works for Austrade as a Trade Commissioner.

“The delegation is here to build business synergy, to build people-to-people synergy. In any market, and especially with the culture here, that’s the first step, to gain trust, and then you start to pave the way for the relationship.”

And it’s this relationship that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hopes to strengthen when he arrives in Shanghai.

Commercially, the two countries are closer than ever before.

Last year Australia’s trade with China was valued at $150 billion and more than one million Chinese visitors travelled to Australia.

Australian agrifood producers have just launched a new unified export branding campaign called ASA100, aiming to further capitalise on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

This will be Malcolm Turnbull’s first visit as Prime Minister, but he is no stranger to doing business with China.

Geoff Raby served as former Australian Ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011.

He’s now based in Beijing.

“The Prime Minister does have a good background on China, a lot of experience. Uniquely for an Australian leader in recent times he does have a very good understanding of contemporary China.”

But it’s not just trade that’s on the table.

Malcolm Turnbull will be meeting both Chinese president Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

He is expected to raise China’s actions in the South and East China Sea where regional tensions are growing due to Chinese reclamation of contested islands and reefs.

Defence analysts believe China is militarising the zone – a claim China disputes.

The Philippines has sought international arbitration and the United States Navy has led so-called “freedom of navigation” activities in the disputed waters.

Australia says it won’t take sides but has called for a peaceful resolution.

Geoff Raby believes Malcolm Turnbull will assert Australia’s position on the South China Sea without compromising the business relationship.

“The Prime Minister has previously said, and in a well-judged way, that China’s behaviour in the South China Sea seems to be a bit perplexing, doesn’t really seem to be in China’s best longer-term strategic interests.”

Over 60 per cent of Australia’s international freight passes through the South China Sea.

Malcolm Turnbull has described China’s apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles in the area as “counterproductive”, a point also raised by Julie Bishop during her recent visit to Beijing in February.

The Chinese government has expressed its displeasure with Australia’s new defence spending plan, as well as discussions to host United States B1 Bombers in the Northern Territory.

Professor Jia Qingguo is the Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University.

“As far as the areas which are closest to the coast of China, even though they are in high sea the foreign military ships and aeroplanes there can cause a threat to China. So China hopes that other countries would be more respectful on this kind of issue.”

The South China Sea isn’t the only sensitive issue Malcolm Turnbull is expected to raise.

Human rights and tightening media control are tipped to also be on the agenda.

But despite these differences, Geoff Raby says the focus on the tour is expected to remain on the two country’s common interests – particularly in regards to business.

“Both sides are very experienced and adept at managing differences. And I think the model really articulated very clearly by Prime Minister Howard many years ago, and is one that has served us well, and that is to focus on areas of common interest.”