As ties thaw, Australia says it welcomes Chinese investment


The Australian government’s rejection of a Chinese bid to take over an energy infrastructure company does not indicate a change in the country’s openness to doing business with China, Foreign Minister Marie Payne said Thursday.

Speaking after a meeting in Beijing with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that marked a thaw in recently chilly relations, Payne stressed “the importance of Australia’s welcoming of Chinese investment in Australia.”

On Wednesday, Australia said it intends to block a Chinese and Hong Kong consortium’s 13 billion Australian dollar ($9 billion) bid to take over the APA group.

Payne said the government judged that the acquisition would have resulted in “an undue concentration of foreign ownership by a single company group in what is our most significant gas transmission business.”

“We remain absolutely committed as a government to welcoming foreign investment into Australia. It supports jobs, it helps us to increase living standards,” she said.

Payne’s meeting with Wang was seen indicating an improvement in ties between the key economic partners after months of tension over accusations of Chinese interference in Australian politics, media and academia. That threatened to upset political ties as well as economic relations with China, which buys about one-third of Australia’s exports.

“I think the most important outcome of this dialogue is that we have reaffirmed the course of this relationship,” Wang said after the meeting, which ran an hour longer than scheduled.

Australia has banned Chinese giants Huawei and ZTE Corp. from new telecommunications projects, and an Australian security think tank has raised concerns about increasing collaboration between Australian universities and China’s People’s Liberation Army scientists on research programs such as hypersonic missiles and navigation technology.

China took particular offense at a new law passed after allegations of Chinese meddling in Australian politics and media exposes about the Communist Party’s dealings with Chinese university students and the expatriate Chinese community in Australia.

China has denounced all accusations of interference as prejudiced “Cold War thinking” and alleges that Australia’s longstanding military alliance with the U.S. is intended to contain China’s growing influence. Australia backs the U.S. in challenging China’s territorial claims to virtually the entire the South China Sea by flying and sailing near Beijing-held islands.

While seeking to improve ties with its biggest trading partner, Australia is also taking steps to shore up its presence in the Asia-Pacific, where China has sought to extend its economic, political and military influence.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday outlined plans to increase investments in infrastructure in the South Pacific and for greater military and diplomatic engagement with Australia’s island neighbors, who are increasing looking to China for aid through Beijing’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure program.

Australia has also announced it will invest in redeveloping a naval base in Papua New Guinea.

Responding to a question on those moves, Wang said South Pacific island nations were entitled to make their own decisions about their foreign relations, but that China was willing to respond to their needs and “engage in cooperation based on equality and for win-win outcomes.”

“China and Australia have our respective strengths when it comes to cooperation with Pacific island countries and in this regard, China and Australia are not competitors, not rivals, but cooperation partners,” Wang said.

He and Payne agreed that “China’s development poses no threat to Australia, but represents opportunities,” Wang said, adding that the meeting constituted “an important engagement after the ups and downs this relationship went through.”

Payne said the ministers also discussed events in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the authorities have detained up to 1 million members of Muslim minority groups in camps in what Beijing calls a move to stamp out extremism. She gave no details of that conversation.

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