It’s unrealistic to expect the Australia-China relationship will always be smooth sailing, the foreign affairs department boss has warned.

Relations with China have soured in the past year, with Beijing especially cranky about Australia’s foreign interference laws.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson acknowledged there were differences between the two countries.

“The presence of differences themselves should not be of concern to us,” Ms Adamson told a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday.

“We should be concerned about managing those differences in a respectful way.”


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She said there were national interests to defend and prosecute, and successive governments had done that.

Ms Adamson confirmed the foreign interference issue was a key challenge, along with strategic issues such as the militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The Chinese government also expressed concerns about expats in Australia being subjected to racism and the safety of university students, following a small number of incidents.

Australian media commentary on China had been an issue of friction, Ms Adamson said, adding the Chinese think there is a lack of respect.

No Australian minister had visited the Chinese mainland for eight months until Trade Minister Steve Ciobo broke the drought earlier this month.

Mr Ciobo went to an AFL game in Shanghai and met the city’s mayor earlier this month but didn’t have talks with any senior Chinese government representatives.

Ms Adamson admitted the Australian embassy had indicated a meeting between Mr Ciobo and his Chinese counterpart “would have been welcome”.

“He would have been willing to travel to Beijing for a meeting with his counterpart if that had been possible,” Ms Adamson said.

Mr Ciobo’s visit to China coincided with Treasury Wines revealing it was grappling with a bureaucratic bottleneck at China’s customs.

The hearing was told three to four other Australian winemakers had also experienced delays getting some products into the country.

Ms Adamson later insisted there was no “evidence” of ministers being denied visas to China.

She played down the fact no ministers were invited to China’s high-level Boao Forum, a major conference in April saying it wasn’t unprecedented.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had faced criticism for mishandling Australia-China ties.

While Ms Bishop characterised a meeting with her Chinese counterpart last week as warm and positive, Wang Yi was less enthusiastic.

Ms Adamson said the meeting was “constructive” and both ministers discussed matters in a forward-looking and positive way.

The former ambassador to Beijing said China was moving away from a previous “hide and bide” policy – made famous by ex-leader Deng Xiaoping – to make bigger contributions to peace and security.