CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A top Australian diplomat told a Senate committee Thursday that the bilateral relationship with China was going through “complex and difficult issues,” but rejected a media report of a diplomatic deep freeze.
Frances Adamson, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, described The Australian newspaper’s headline: “Cold war: China’s freeze on ties” as “just wrong.”
“We’re going through a period where there are some complex and difficult issues, but we’re working through those,” Adamson told the committee, without elaborating on those issues.
“The embassy is operating as you would expect,” she added, referring to Australia’s diplomatic post in Beijing
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop backed the diplomat’s assessment.
“Despite some of the commentary in Australian and Chinese newspapers, we are not experiencing a ‘freeze’ in diplomatic relations with China,” Bishop’s office said in a media statement.
“Australia’s deep diplomatic engagement with China continues as normal,” the statement added.
The Chinese Embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
The newspaper reported China was putting Australia into a diplomatic deep freeze to pressure Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over proposed new laws to prevent foreign interference in Australia and naval challenges to Chinese claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea.
China had deferred Adamson’s planned visit to Beijing last year, was stalling ministerial visits and was putting off a range of lower-level exchanges, the newspaper said.
Adamson said she had planned to fly to Beijing in November, January and February, but none of the dates she suggested was convenient for the Chinese. She intended to offer a further date for consideration this year.
She said that there was nothing unusual about not having firm dates agreed yet for Turnbull and Bishop to visit Beijing this year.
“Yes, there are differences between us at the moment, that has been evidence from a range of sources,” she said. “But our relationship continues to function as it should.”
China has recently made two official complaints about Australia with language that has been extraordinarily hostile. Chinese state media has also been caustic about Australia.
China protested in January over an Australian minister’s criticisms that Chinese aid programs in poor Pacific island countries were creating “white elephants” that threatened economic stability without delivering benefits.
China protested in December against Turnbull’s announcement that Australia will ban foreign interference in its politics — either through espionage or financial donations. The move was motivated largely by Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 U.S. election and China’s growing influence on the global political landscape.
The Chinese foreign ministry said then that Turnbull’s remarks were prejudiced against China and had poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations.
Other Chinese gripes include Australia’s close military ties with the United States, Australia’s tightening foreign investment rules and Australia’s refusal to ratify an bilateral extradition treaty.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and the close bilateral relationship has created tensions in Australia’s relations with the United States, its closest defense ally.
Adamson said both China and Australia continue to benefit from their bilateral relationship.
“It’s been the case no matter who has been in government in Australia that there’ve been occasional periods of tension in our relationship with China — occasional periods where differences are to the fore,” Adamson said.
“But they have never got in the way of us each seeking to pursue a relationship that is of mutual benefit,” she added.