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Australian trade minister arrives in China amid rising tensions

Colin Packham

SYDNEY, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Australia's Minister for Trade, Simon Birmingham, on Tuesday became the highest-ranking Australian official to visit China in a year, as Canberra attempts to ensure that cooling diplomatic relations do not hinder trade.

The Australian-China diplomatic relationship has frayed in recent years amid allegations that Beijing has committed cyber-attacks and has attempted to interfere in Canberra's domestic affairs.

On Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met, where both promised to try to improve the relationship, worth more than A$180 billion ($123.77 billion) in two-way trade last year.

Birmingham on Tuesday arrived in Shanghai to reinforce that message, leading a delegation of 200 Australian companies attending the China International Import Expo (CIIE).

"Australia's strong representation at CIIE is recognition of the close trade and investment relationship our businesses share with China, underpinned by the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement," Birmingham said in an emailed statement.

Birmingham is the most senior Australian minister to visit China since Foreign Minister Marise Payne travelled to Beijing in November 2018.

China lodged a formal protest after Payne this month said Canberra would hold Beijing to account for its human rights record.

China has been widely condemned for setting up complexes in remote Xinjiang it describes as "vocational training centres" intended to stamp out extremism and teach new skills.

The United Nations says at least 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained.

Australia can ill afford for tensions to weigh on bilateral trade.

Australia's economy has slowed in recent months, increasing Canberra's reliance on China, which dominates the purchase of Australian iron ore, coal and agricultural goods. It buys more than one-third of the country's total exports and sends more than a million tourists and students there each year.

"The relationship with China is in good shape. The fact that minister Birmingham is there demonstrates Australia's commitment to keep it that way," said James Laurenceson, Acting Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

($1 = 1.4543 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Gerry Doyle)