China envoy says Australia fired first shot with Huawei ban

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia had fired the “first shot” in its deteriorating relations with China four years ago when the then government banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from rolling out the country’s 5G network due to security concerns, a Chinese ambassador said Friday.

Xiao Qian, China’s ambassador to Australia since January, gave a rare public speech at University Technology Sydney, which was repeatedly interrupted by human rights protesters holding signs reading “Free Tibet” and “Independence from Hong Kong”.

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said he was not aware of the human rights protesters during Xiao’s speech, but “we hope the relevant people will comply with basic diplomatic protocol.”

The speech comes as China shows signs of thawing a diplomatic freezer of Australian ministers following the election of a new government last month.

Bilateral relations plummeted in early 2020 after the previous Australian government called for an independent investigation on the emergence of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Xiao highlighted the government’s decision in 2018 to block Huawei from deploying 5G in Australia as a turning point in the relationship.

“That could perhaps be described as the first shot that really damaged our normal business relationships,” Xiao said.

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang wrote to congratulate Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanian days after his election victory in a gesture seen by some as China trying to mend the relationship.

Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe met his Australian counterpart Richard Marles this month on the sidelines of a regional security summit in Singapore. Prime Minister-to-Minister talks between the two countries in more than two years.

Albanian has acknowledged some improvements in bilateral relationship but is demanding China lift a series of formal and informal sanctions on Australian exports as a goodwill gesture.

“China, some improvements have already been made. But there is still a long way to go. It will be a problematic relationship,” Albanian told the Australian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday.

Xiao said there was still time for the two countries to restore relations so that both could celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations on December 21.

“Personally, I’m still optimistic,” Xiao said.

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