June 8, 2018 / 5:45 AM / 5 months ago

In test of sour ties, Australia asks China to approve foreign minister visit

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia has asked China to approve a visit by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, an Australian spokeswoman said on Friday, a request that should provide an indication of just how strained ties between the two trading partners have become.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop talks during a news conference with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto (not pictured) in Budapest, Hungary, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Bishop hopes to travel to China this year for the latest in a series of annual meetings the two countries’ foreign ministers have held since 2014.

“We are discussing dates with China for our next foreign security dialogue,” a spokeswoman for Bishop told Reuters.

A second source familiar with Australia’s foreign relations said Australia made the suggestion late last month, and China would normally respond to such a proposal “within weeks”.

Analysts said China was unlikely to formally reject the proposal, but could sit on it indefinitely, making a meeting unfeasible.

China’s response will indicate whether it intends to improve relations with Australia, which have been strained over its accusations China was meddling in its domestic affairs.

“It would be huge if Bishop does not travel to China this year, it would mark an escalation in the current diplomatic tensions,” said James Laurenceson, an expert on the two nations’ economic ties, at the University of Technology in Sydney.

Chinese foreign ministry Hua Chunying said she did not have any information on a visit by Bishop, but welcomed better ties.

“China has always welcomed and is willing to develop friendly exchanges and cooperation with countries around the world on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” Hua said on Thursday.

Less than a year ago, Australia-Chinese relations were riding high, with two-way trade last year worth a record A$170 billion ($130 billion).

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s accusation of Chinese meddling, however, threatens those unchecked economic ties.

China, which denies the accusations, originally kept it response towards Australia constrained to diplomatic protests.

But the row escalated last month. Six Australian wine companies, including Treasury Wine Estates Ltd, the world’s biggest-listed winemaker, have faced delays getting products through Chinese customs.

MIXED MESSAGES

As fears grow that Australian wine sales to China will fail to hit the forecast A$1 billion this year, the industry has called on Turnbull to travel to China to smooth ties.

Turnbull has said he intends to go this year but has yet to propose dates to China, a source familiar with the prime minister’s plans told Reuters.

Trade Minister Steven Ciobo last month attempted to smooth ties on a trip to China lat month, the first by an elected Australian official in seven months.

But he was largely shunned during his three-day visit.

Australia says it wants to smooth what it calls “irritants” in the bilateral relationship, though analysts said it is pushing ahead with policies that are unlikely to be well received in China.

The government on Friday secured bipartisan support for foreign interference laws, all but securing passage of the legislation that soured Australian-China relations so badly.

Senior Australian government officials have also continued to publicly criticize China.

This week, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Bishop both accused China of applying undue pressure on national flag carrier Qantas Airways Ltd to change its website to refer to the self-governed island of Taiwan as a Chinese territory.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel

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