SYDNEY, Australia — Four years after Australia’s ties with China entered a downward spiral, with Australia emerging as an energetic counterweight to Beijing’s growing might, the two countries have begun to explore whether they can patch things up.
Since Australia’s new, center-left government came to power last month, leaders in both countries have signaled that they want to ease the tensions of recent years. Their disputes over technology, trade barriers, accusations of illicit Chinese influence in Australian politics, and each country’s military plans, have sometimes erupted in vitriol.
China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, said on Friday that the change of leadership in Canberra was an “opportunity of possible improvement of our bilateral relations.”
“There is every reason for China and Australia to be friends and partners, rather than adversaries,” Mr. Xiao said in a speech at the University of Technology Sydney. He was interrupted several times by protesters calling for China to end its repression in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. “This man should be a pariah,” one shouted.
Later, Mr. Xiao said: “The atmosphere in both countries needs be to improved, that’s a fact.”
Mr. Xiao has used speeches, newspaper commentaries, and private meetings to make overtures that Beijing wants better relations. China’s premier, Li Keqiang, sent a congratulatory message to Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, after his May election victory, and called for “sound and stable” ties. The Chinese and Australian defense ministers held talks this month at a security forum in Singapore, ending a freeze on ministerial-level meetings since early 2020.
Mr. Albanese has said that he wants to restore high-level dialogue with China, his country’s largest trading partner. But he has said that Beijing must lift trade sanctions on Australia for ties to improve, and has indicated that he would maintain the generally harder line on China that took shape under his conservative predecessors. “Already there have been some improvements,” Mr. Albanese said recently of ties with China. “But there’s a long way to go.”
The Biden administration and governments around Asia are likely to watch closely for concrete signs of rapprochement. The previous prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, strengthened Canberra’s ties with Washington and cast himself as showing the way in standing up to China. Last year, Mr. Morrison signed a defense technology agreement with the United States and Britain that could give Australia nuclear-powered submarines.
Mr. Albanese and his ministers have said they would keep that agreement and continue pressing China over its military buildup and activities in the South Pacific. They have said they would assert Australia’s right to send navy ships through the South China Sea, where China claims many islands also claimed by Southeast Asian countries.
Since May, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has visited four Pacific island countries to make the case that Australia — implicitly not China — should be their “partner of choice.”
“Ultimately, to stabilize bilateral relations, China would have to be prepared to tolerate a large degree of continuity in Australia’s suite of China-related policies,” said Richard Maude, a former Australian foreign policy official who is now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
But Australia’s leaders say that even so, the tone of relations could improve. After meeting his Chinese counterpart, the Australian defense minister, Richard Marles, said “this is only a first step.”
“Both sides are likely to proceed cautiously,” Mr. Maude wrote in emailed comments. “Even a less hostile relationship will be inherently volatile and hostage to any number of fundamental differences and disputes.”
Few observers expect relations to return to where they were in 2014, when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, visited Australia and together with the then Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, declared the completion of a free trade pact.
Back then, optimism about relations was buoyed by China’s growing appetite for Australian resources, especially iron ore and coal, as well as wine, wheat and other farm goods. Chinese officials and media appeared confident that Australia’s economic dependence on their country would keep tensions in check.
But Australian leaders became increasingly wary of China’s influence and its intentions. China’s military dominance in the South China Sea alarmed Canberra and other capitals. In 2018, Australia introduced laws — implicitly aimed at the Chinese Communist Party — banning covert political activities on behalf of a foreign government. Australia became the first Western government to block Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications equipment companies from helping to build its 5G network.
Relations have chilled even more in recent years. Mr. Morrison called for international investigators — with wide powers like “weapons inspectors” have — to look into the origin of the coronavirus, which first spread in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. That proposal incensed Beijing. The Australian defense minister, Peter Dutton, suggested that China was behaving abroad like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Chinese officials have denounced Australia’s plans to acquire the nuclear-propelled submarines. Since 2020, Beijing has imposed punishing tariffs and informal embargoes on Australian products worth about $16 billion, though it has spared Australia’s exports of iron ore, essential to China’s industry.
China’s economic retaliation appeared to only deepen Australian public and official wariness of the Chinese government.
“Despite the pressure they have put on Australia, China didn’t achieve what they set out to,” Yun Jiang, a fellow at the Australian Institute of International Affairs who studies China, said in an interview. “They probably wanted to change tack a bit, and the election was good timing for them to do that.”
Beijing may press Australia to open the door to China joining a new regional trade pact, and to ease anti-dumping investigations and regulatory barriers to business acquisitions, said Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at the Australian National University who writes a newsletter on Chinese-Australian relations.
Canberra also faces pressure to secure the release of Australians detained in China. They include Yang Hengjun, a writer and businessman who was put on trial last year for espionage, a charge he has denied, as well as Cheng Lei, a journalist detained in Beijing, where she worked for CGTN, China’s state-run international broadcaster.
Ms. Cheng, whose two children are in Australia, stood trial in March, accused of passing state secrets abroad. The court has not announced a judgment. On Friday, Mr. Xiao, the ambassador, said Mr. Yang and Ms. Cheng had been given their lawful rights.
“Trade and a range of other things are going to take time to work through,” Nick Coyle, an Australian businessman who is Ms. Cheng’s partner, said in an interview. “But dealing with her case expeditiously and compassionately, and getting her home to her kids and family, would be a good sign.”
On Friday, Mr. Xiao, the Chinese ambassador who took up his post this year, denied that a list of 14 grievances that a Chinese diplomat shared with Australian media in 2020 set preconditions for restoring normal ties. The grievances included the ban on Huawei, security raids on Chinese journalists, and “antagonistic” media reporting on China. Australia’s former prime minister, Mr. Morrison, had said the list showed “how Australia was being coerced by China,” and created a barrier to improved ties.
“I don’t have a list; I have never seen a list of 14 points,” Mr. Xiao said. “The concerns have been reported in a twisted way as the so-called preconditions, as demands. This is not true.”