(Australian Associated Press)
Scott Morrison has described his meeting with Chinese premier Li Keqiang as honest and candid, but bristled at suggestions the talks were stern.
The prime minister sat down with Premier Li on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, after many months of diplomatic spot fires over Beijing’s human rights abuses, expansionism and attempts at foreign interference.
“There’s an honest acknowledgement that we’re two pretty different countries,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Bangkok on Monday.
“We’re a liberal democracy and they’re a communist party state. We’re not seeking to adopt their system, and they’re not seeking to adopt ours.”
The two leaders acknowledged the Australia-China relationship was heavily strained and would take work from both sides to restore.
“We recognise we’ve got a great relationship, but we know it can be even better when we address some important issues about how we continue to engage,” Mr Morrison said.
The meeting came just days after China publicly rebuked Australia’s foreign minister for daring to call out its human rights record.
It has been three years since an Australian prime minister has held an official meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Mr Morrison sidestepped questions about whether securing such a meeting would send an important signal in repairing strained Australia-China relations.
“I’m not one who is big on symbolism, I’m big on actions and the practical value of the relationship,” he said.
Mr Morrison pointed out various senior ministers had visited China in recent months, with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham heading to Shanghai on Tuesday.
The prime minister signalled he raised thorny issues during the 45-minute meeting with Mr Li, including the detention in Beijing of Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun.
“We deal with lots of sensitive issues in these discussions, as we did again, and that’s the nature of the candid relationship that we have,” he said.
“But we deal with those in private discussions.”
Mr Morrison said Australia and its largest trading partner would continue to work together while understanding there would always be issues of disagreement.
“There is nothing extraordinary about that at all,” he said.
Mr Morrison again rejected the argument Australia needed to choose between the United States as its closest security ally and China as its number one trading partner.