Australian and Chinese Leaders Meet in Beijing While Their Countries Try to Mend Ties

BEIJING (AP) -- Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday on the first visit by an Australian leader to China in seven years as the two countries try to mend their tattered ties.

Chinese state media reported the meeting but did not provide details. The talks were expected to focus on trade as China has eased some but not all of the restrictive steps it took as relations deteriorated.

Albanese struck an optimistic tone ahead of his meeting, calling for cooperation while emphasizing that the two countries will continue to have differences.

"What I've said is that we need to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest," he said in Beijing. "I think there are promising signs we've already seen, a number of the impediments to trade between our two nations removed and an uplift already, substantial uplift in the trade between our two nations."

His visit comes near the 50th anniversary of the first trip by an Australian prime minister to the People's Republic of China.

Relations nosedived in recent years as suspicions of Chinese interference in Australian politics increased. China, in turn, was angered by Australia's call for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

China levied tariffs and unofficial trade barriers that are estimated to have cost Australian exporters up to 20 billion Australian dollars ($13 billion) a year for products such as coal, wine, beef, barley and lobsters.

Those barriers have since been substantially reduced and now cost about $2 billion Australian dollars ($1.3 billion).

Further, Australian journalist Cheng Lei was released last month after three years in detention in China under charges of espionage in a case that had come to be a focal point in the tensions.

Before coming to Beijing, Albanese was a guest at the opening ceremony of an annual import expo in Shanghai on Sunday at which Chinese Premier Li Qiang pledged to further relax market access.

Even as Albanese has largely sounded upbeat during his visit, Australia is still actively pursuing a security partnership with the United Kingdom and the United States that China views as an attempt to counter its influence in the region.