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Chinese premier promises more pandas and urges Australia to put aside differences

MELBOURNE, Australia (news agencies) — Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia on Sunday focused on positive aspects of the bilateral relationship including shared giant pandas and a rebounding wine trade as he promised a new breeding pair of the rare bears and urged both countries to put aside their differences.

China’s most powerful leader after President Xi Jinping arrived late Saturday in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia state, which has produced most of the Australian wine entering China since crippling tariffs were lifted in March that had effectively ended a 1.2 billion Australian dollar ($790 million) a year trade since 2020.

Li visited Adelaide Zoo, which has been home to China-born giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni since 2009, before he was to have lunch at a restaurant at an Adelaide winery.

He announced that the zoo would be loaned another two pandas after the pair are due to return to China in November.

“China will soon provide another pair of pandas that are equally beautiful, lively, cute and younger to the Adelaide Zoo, and continue the cooperation on giant pandas between China and Australia,” Li said in Mandarin, adding that zoo staff would be invited to “pick a pair.”

Li was impressed by the 18-year-old male Wang Wang’s appetite and indifference to his high-ranking visitors.

“The panda is very obsessed with eating and doesn’t pay attention to us even when we are the people from its hometown visiting,” Li said at the panda enclosure.

“It has completely treated here as its second hometown,” Li said. “Very pretty, adorable, with charming naivety.”

The pair are the only pandas in the Southern Hemisphere and failed to produce offspring in Australia.

Li’s visit is the first to Australia by a Chinese premier in seven years and marks an improvement in relations since Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labor Party was elected in 2022.

Li noted that Albanese in November was the first Australian prime minister to visit China since 2016.

“China-Australia relations were back on track after a period of twists and turns, generating tangible benefits to the people of both countries,” Li said, according to a translation released by the Chinese Embassy in Australia on Sunday.

“History has proven that mutual respect, seeking common ground while shelving differences and mutually beneficial cooperation are the valuable experience in growing China-Australia relations, and must be upheld and carried forward,” Li added.

Dozens of pro-China demonstrators and human rights protesters gathered outside the zoo before Li’s visit.

China initiated a reset of the relationship after the previous conservative administration’s nine years in power ended.

Relations collapsed over legislation that banned covert foreign interference in Australian politics, the exclusion of Chinese-owned telecommunications giant Huawei from rolling out the national 5G network due to security concerns, and Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the causes of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beijing imposed an array of official and unofficial trade blocks in 2020 on a range of Australian exports including coal, wine, beef, barley and wood that cost up to AU$20 billion ($13 billion) a year.

All the trade bans have now been lifted except for Australian live lobster exports. Trade Minister Don Farrell predicted that impediment would also be lifted soon after Li’s visit with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Li’s visit was the result of “two years of very deliberate, very patient work by this government to bring about a stabilization of the relationship and to work towards the removal of trade impediments.”

“We will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must and we will engage in our national interest,” Wong told Australian Broadcasting Corp. before joining Li for lunch.

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