Malcolm Turnbull in first visit to China urges Beijing to push for open markets, rule of law

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (both facing camera) at a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday. Mr Turnbull is making his first visit to China since he became Prime Minister l
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (both facing camera) at a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday. Mr Turnbull is making his first visit to China since he became Prime Minister last September.PHOTO: REUTERS

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in China with a 1,000- strong business delegation, urged Beijing to stay the course on its "long journey" towards open markets and the rule of law. This was as he sought to navigate ties with his country's biggest trading partner amid raised tensions in the South China Sea.

While strengthening economic links is top of the agenda on the back of a bilateral free trade pact inked last year, the South China Sea issue is likely to feature in the two-day visit that kicked off in Shanghai yesterday.

Mr Turnbull, making his first visit to China since he became Prime Minister last September, later travelled to Beijing where he met Premier Li Keqiang. He is expected to meet President Xi Jinping today.

 

While avoiding politically sensitive issues in a speech to Chinese and Australian business leaders in Shanghai, Mr Turnbull reportedly planned to tell Chinese leaders that their assertive posture in the South China Sea risks harming China's international ties.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, but is challenged by other claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Tensions have risen over China's deployment of missiles on a disputed isle and the United States' freedom of navigation patrols.

During their meeting, Mr Li was quoted by Xinhua news agency as telling Mr Turnbull that their countries can complement each other's strengths and cooperate in such areas as infrastructure building and equipment manufacturing.

Earlier in Shanghai, Mr Turnbull announced how Chinese visitors would find it even easier to go to Australia, which welcomed more than one million Chinese contributing A$8.3 billion (S$8.7 billion) to the economy last year. Mr Turnbull said Australia would try out 10-year validity visas, streamline visas for Chinese students and offer visa applications in the Chinese language.

Analysts say Australia, a key US security ally that is also economically dependent on China, faces a delicate balancing act. But some, like Peking University professor Niu Jun, do not expect the South China Sea issue to hurt economic ties.

"It's not possible for China to allow economic ties to be affected with all countries it has such disputes with. The South China Sea issue has also been going on for years and economic exchanges have not stopped," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull urges China to push for open markets, rule of law'. Print Edition | Subscribe