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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Katharine Murphy Political editor in Phnom Penh

Albanese meeting with Chinese premier heralds potential thaw in diplomatic freeze

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (C) attends the East Asia Summit Gala dinner in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 12, 2022.
The Australian prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, says he is prepared to have a conversation with his Chinese counterpart without ‘preconditions’. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Anthony Albanese has met the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, at a gala dinner in Cambodia, opening the first leader-to-leader dialogue between the two countries since 2019.

The Australian prime minister’s office confirmed on Sunday the two leaders had a brief exchange after arriving at the dinner in Phnom Penh. The last conversation between the leaders of the two countries occurred when Scott Morrison and Li met in 2019.

Australia’s prime minister has been signalling for days he is prepared to meet his Chinese counterpart, and Albanese escalated that diplomatic signal late on Saturday on the sidelines of the Australia-Asean summit.

Albanese told journalists hours before the gala dinner he was prepared to have a conversation without “preconditions”.

The prime minister’s office said Albanese and Li exchanged greetings and then spoke briefly about the 50-year anniversary of diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China by the Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam.

The conversation on Saturday sets up the potential for Albanese to meet the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at the G20 summit in Bali.

The US president, Joe Biden – who is also in Phnom Penh for Sunday’s East Asia Summit – will meet the Chinese president on Monday. It remains unclear whether Albanese will hold a formal bilateral with Xi at the G20.

Anthony Albanese (centre) talks to Chinese premiere, Li Keqiang, at the East Asia summit.
Anthony Albanese (centre) talks to Chinese premiere, Li Keqiang, at the East Asia summit. Photograph: TVK, Cambodia

On Saturday, the prime minister welcomed the looming conversation between Biden and Xi. “Out of dialogue comes understanding, and we need more [of that] not less, in today’s uncertain world,” Albanese told reporters in Phnom Penh.

Australia’s prime minister noted that Canberra and Beijing’s foreign affairs and defence ministers had already met, despite significant irritants in the bilateral relationship, as part of a cautious diplomatic thaw after Labor’s election victory in May.

“If the leaders of our respective countries have a meeting, that would be positive,” the prime minister said on Saturday. Albanese noted it was “the nature of these events that meetings get locked in at the last minute”.

Albanese has met the Cambodia prime minister Hun Sen and the prime ministers of Laos and Vietnam on the sidelines of Asean. Albanese also had a conversation with the US president Joe Biden at Saturday night’s gala dinner.

He mingled with other counterparts, including the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo.

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