Australia says China canceled minister’s visit over Uighur activist row

Australia says China canceled minister’s visit

CANBERRA, Australia — China canceled a senior minister’s trip in anger at Australia’s granting of a visa to an exiled Uighur activist in the latest sign that ties between the two countries are strained.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told Parliament on Tuesday that he decided to allow Rebiya Kadeer — an ethnic Uighur Muslim from China’s west who lives in exile in the United States — to visit despite strong protestations from Beijing.

“The Chinese authorities made it very clear to Australian officials that they were most unhappy with her visit,” Smith said.

As a result, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei did not attend a summit of 16 Pacific nation leaders or a senior bilateral meeting in the northern city of Cairns in early August, Smith said.

China accuses Kadeer of inciting riots between Uighurs and members of the dominant Han Chinese group in Xinjiang in July that killed at least 197 people and injured more than 1,700. She denies it.

Beijing’s displeasure over Kadeer’s trip came as Canberra voiced concern at the arrest of an Australian mining executive on charges of commercial espionage.

While she was in Australia, four employees of the mining giant Rio Tinto Ltd., including Australian citizen Stern Hu, were charged with infringing trade secrets and bribery in the multibillion-dollar iron ore trade.

Smith described the situations with Kadeer and Hu as “difficulties that we have in our relationship with China” that Australia was “managing.”

He reiterated that Australia supports Chinese sovereignty over its restive Xinjiang region.

A Chinese Embassy official in Canberra was not immediately available for comment.

The two governments have long-running differences over iron ore pricing and Chinese state-controlled investment in Australia’s resource industry.

China has repeatedly complained about steep iron ore price hikes in the past two years by Australian-listed miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Australia replies that the government cannot interfere with free market forces.

Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull accused Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a mandarin-speaking former diplomat to Beijing, of bringing bilateral relations to “the lowest ebb they have been for many, many years.”

“He obviously has no leverage with China left at all,” Turnbull said.

Michael McKinley, an Australian National University expert on global relations, said the relationship was under strain but remained stable because of underlying interests. “Australia needs to sell stuff and the Chinese need to buy it from regular suppliers.”

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