CANBERRA/SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Chinese ambassador to Australia on Tuesday accused it of harbouring a Cold War mentality and said “less bias and bigotry” was needed to repair strained relations between the two nations.
“We need to see each other’s development and policy intentions from a more positive perspective with less Cold War mentality,” Ambassador Cheng Jingye said in a speech to the Australia China Business Council (ACBC) in the capital Canberra.
Relations have soured since Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused China late last year of meddling in domestic affairs, and using loans to gain leverage over poor South Pacific island nations.
China has denied any meddling in Australia.
The rift has spilled into the trade sphere in recent weeks as Australian wine exporters such as Treasury Wine Estates have faced delays getting some products through Chinese customs.
“It is my belief that in order to ... achieve sustained and sound development in bilateral relations the two countries need to have more interaction and inclusiveness with less bias and bigotry,” Cheng said in his speech.
The ambassador did not stay to network with Australian business leaders after his speech to the council as he did at the same event last year. Neither did he attend a Tuesday evening cocktail reception at the Chinese embassy.
Cheng did not attend the reception because he had another commitment, ACBC Chief Executive Helen Sawczak said in a text message to Reuters.
China’s embassy in Canberra did not respond to an email request for comment on his early departure from the gathering.
The ambassador’s behaviour could be part of a strategy to keep Australia in the “Beijing freezer,” said James Leibold, associate professor in the politics department at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
“It’s quite clear that the relationship is in a frosty state and that Beijing is trying to teach us a lesson,” he said, adding that Australia has struggled in recent months to secure high-level meetings with Chinese officials.
Editorials in Chinese state media, including the China Daily and the Global Times, accused Australia of arrogance and taking a “distorted view on relations”.
The annual business event took place just as Canberra prepares to introduce foreign interference legislation aimed in large part at reducing Chinese influence in Australia’s media, universities and politics.
Cheng was introduced at the council event by former Australian politician John Brumby, who is a director of the Australian arm of Chinese phone and network equipment company Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.
Any fallout from the foreign interference legislation will likely be exacerbated by an expected ban on Huawei from supplying equipment for the soon-to-be built 5G mobile broadband network on national security grounds.
Australian security agencies and Huawei have clashed over worries that the telecommunication company’s desire to supply hardware for Australia’s nascent 5G network poses a data security risk.
Turnbull, who addressed the function after Cheng, said the relationship was a “very, very strong one” and could endure differences from time to time.
“It’s important to emphasise the strength of the relationship, the enduring nature of the relationship and above all that it is based on mutual respect,” he said.
Two-way trade between the nations has grown since Australia and China signed a trade pact in 2015, increasing to A$170 billion ($128 billion) last year.
Reporting by Colin Packham in CANBERRA and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Darren Schuettler