China's Li in Australia trade talks amid Trump fears

China is Australia's largest trade partner and its economic importance has grown in the Donald Trump era

Australia urged China Thursday to press ahead with economic reforms as Premier Li Keqiang began a trade-focused visit amid growing fears of a US slide towards protectionism.

China is Australia's largest trade partner and its economic importance has grown in the Donald Trump era after the US president ripped into Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a decorum-breaking phone call, fraying relations.

Turnbull said he hoped China and Australia could sign new bilateral agreements at a time of "increasingly loud voices calling for a retreat from the project of global economic liberalisation into protectionism".

Li's trip comes as the United States challenges longstanding global principles surrounding free trade, refusing to renew past anti-protectionist pledges.

"My government remains committed to championing trade liberalisation," said Turnbull in a column for the Australian Financial Review, adding that he welcomed President Xi Jinping's recent robust defence of open markets.

"It is critical, not only to China but also to the Australian and global economies, that China moves ahead with its substantial reform agenda."

Li's visit is the most senior by a Chinese leader to Australia since Xi in November 2014 when he shook hands on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which came into force in 2015.

As well as bilateral trade, Turnbull and Li are expected to discuss the progress of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership proposal that also includes Southeast Asian countries, India and Japan, but excludes the US.

While trade is set to dominate, tensions in the strategic South China Sea, which has vital global shipping routes and what is believed to be significant oil and natural gas deposits, will also be discussed.

China claims virtually all of the area despite partial counter-claims from several other nations. Canberra has been vocal in insisting that all shipping has a right to pass through what it regards as international waters.

"Once again Premier Li and I will discuss the importance of ensuring that all regional disagreements, including those in the South China Sea, are resolved by negotiation and in accordance with international law," said Turnbull.