October 15, 2009 / 5:41 AM / 10 years ago

Australia, China ties thaw as military chiefs meet

CANBERRA, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Months of tense diplomatic relations between Australia and China showed signs of easing on Thursday, with senior military leaders from both holding brief strategic talks in Australia’s capital.

General Chen Bingde, Chief of General Staff for the three-million-strong Peoples Liberation Army, met Australian counterpart Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and Defence Minister John Faulkner for closed-door discussions.

The talks saw “progress in expanding defence and security activities”, Faulkner said afterwards in a briefly worded statement, bringing “more opportunities both for open communication and to promote cooperation”.

Relations between Australia and China were soured by the arrest in China of an Australian mining executive for commercial espionage and by the granting of an Australian visa to an exiled ethnic Uighur leader, which infuriated Beijing.

China’s military was also angered by an Australian strategic planning blueprint released in May which identified Beijing’s continuing $70 billion military buildup as a potential source of regional instability.

In August, Beijing cancelled a visit by Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs He Yafei over the granting of a visa for Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, blamed by China for instigating ethnic riots in Xinjiang province.

But Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said last month economic interdependence between his country and Beijing, its biggest trade partner, would ultimately override differences, with two-way trade worth $53 billion at stake.

In a sign of thawing relations, Australia’s Climate Change Minister Penny Wong had a surprise meeting with senior Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Wednesday. [ID:nPEK6067]

The meeting was the first by an Australian minister with a member of China’s nine-man government Politburo since relations first began to sour after Chinese state-owned metals firm Chinalco failed in a $19.5 billion bid for a stake in Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto (RIO.AX).

Australia’s military had a full honour guard for Chen and other senior Chinese military officers, including deputy commanders of the PLA navy and air force, Vice Admiral Zhang Yongyi and Lieutenant General Zhao Zhongxin.

The Chinese received a briefing on the strategic blueprint.

Houston said strategic talks between Australia and China, upgraded last year to include senior figures, reflected “developing ties” between the two militaries.

Australia’s military conducted joint naval exercises with Chinese and New Zealand forces in 2007, with an invitation for the PLA to take part in fresh naval and land exercises issued by both Australia and the United States last month.

“You only have to look to multilateral counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa, to which both China and Australia contribute, to see the value of solid defence engagement and dialogue,” he said. (Editing by Jerry Norton)

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