Australian PM Says China Relations ‘Full of Challenges’

MELBOURNE ~ Australia conceded on Thursday that its relations with China were challenging, but vowed to stand up for values such as freedom of speech despite strained diplomatic ties with its major trading partner.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd likened recent rows with Beijing to “bumps in the road” and played down media reports that Australia’s ambassador to China had returned to Canberra for crisis talks on the deteriorating relationship.

Rudd said he would try to make time to meet ambassador Geoff Raby but insisted the top diplomat’s trip to Canberra was nothing out of the ordinary and ambassadors often returned home for consultations.

The prime minister, a Mandarin-speaking Sinophile who came to office promising closer relations with the communist-ruled Asian giant, said tensions were inevitable between nations that had different values.

“The China-Australia relationship is always full of challenges and can I say it always has been thus and it will be thus for quite a long time to come,” he told reporters.

Recent frictions have stemmed from China’s detention of an Australian executive with mining giant Rio Tinto and Canberra’s move to allow a visit by Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer, whom Beijing accuses of being a terrorist.

Rio Tinto’s rejection of a US$19.5-billion cash injection from China’s state-owned aluminium giant Chinalco also sparked outrage in Beijing’s official media.

“Our challenge in managing this relationship is simply to negotiate those bumps in the road as they occur,” Rudd said.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith revealed this week that a “most unhappy” China had axed a senior minister’s visit in retaliation for his rejection of top-level appeals from Beijing not to allow Kadeer into the country.

Smith said Thursday that he carefully considered the Chinese representations but decided that interfering in Kadeer’s visa application was not in the national interest.

“The reason why we issued a visa, the reason why I didn’t disturb that, is because we have values and virtues of long standing,” he told parliament.

“We understand, respect and recognise freedom of speech. We value the capacity of someone to come to our country and say things, even if we don’t agree with them.”

He said Canberra disagreed with Kadeer’s calls for autonomy in China’s western Xinjiang region but Australia’s democratic values meant she should have the freedom to state her case.

Resource-rich Australia has benefited from Chinese demand for raw materials to fuel its industrialisation, with the trade relationship worth $58 billion last year.

This week Canberra triumphantly revealed PetroChina had signed a $41.3-billion contract to buy liquefied natural gas from Western Australia state, the biggest trade deal in Australia’s history.

But Rudd pointed out that China also gained from the relationship.

“China has significant interests in Australia,” he said. “China’s interests in Australia go to its long-term needs for its resource security.”

Rudd said ambassador Raby often returned from Beijing at this time of year, but conceded the timing was apt.

“Obviously, it’s a good time to take stock of the relationship and how we move forward,” he said.

Smith this week said it was business as usual for the two nations.

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