Australia demands China explain why it has been singled out on trade restrictions

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Australia’s trade minister says China should clarify why other nations maintained workable relations despite differences

China should explain why it appears to have singled out Australia with a range of import restrictions that have disrupted trade flows and undermined trust in the economic relationship, the Australian trade minister has said.

With Australia and its largest trading partner locked in a stalemate over how to end the tensions, Simon Birmingham also used a television interview on Sunday to accuse the Chinese embassy in Canberra of taking a number of unhelpful actions this year.

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World news | The Guardian

China should explain why it appears to have singled out Australia with a range of import restrictions that have disrupted trade flows and undermined trust in the economic relationship, the Australian trade minister has said.

With Australia and its largest trading partner locked in a stalemate over how to end the tensions, Simon Birmingham also used a television interview on Sunday to accuse the Chinese embassy in Canberra of taking a number of unhelpful actions this year.

A Chinese embassy official told Guardian Australia on Friday that “the problem is all caused by the Australian side” and Canberra should stop treating China as a strategic threat if it wanted to resume ministerial level talks that have been frozen since early this year.

Those comments came after the embassy provided Nine News with a list of 14 areas of dispute with Australia earlier in the week, including the Morrison government’s public commentary about human rights or territorial issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, the blocking of numerous Chinese foreign investment proposals, and “antagonistic” media reporting by Australia’s free press.

Birmingham told Sky News on Sunday he did not think “that a number of the actions from China’s embassy in Australia have been particularly helpful this year”.

He cited remarks made by the Chinese ambassador, Cheng Jingye, in April in which the top envoy warned that Australia’s forthright push for an international investigation into the origins and early handling of Covid-19 could sour bilateral ties and affect consumer sentiment.

Cheng told the Australian Financial Review that “if the mood is going from bad to worse”, Chinese tourists may rethink travelling to Australia, parents may reconsider sending their children to Australia to study, and consumers might rethink drinking Australian wine or eating Australian beef.

Birmingham said the ambassador’s comments “essentially were threats of coercion”, while the embassy’s subsequent list of “claimed grievances” contained the “types of things that … any country rightly does in terms of providing for rules around foreign investment to make sure it’s in the national interest, rules to protect critical infrastructure and security provisions in nations”.

“That’s something that China does as much as Australia does,” Birmingham said.

When asked why some Asian nations – including those with territorial disputes with China – could maintain workable relations and yet Australia’s relationship had deteriorated so much, Birmingham said it was something for Beijing to explain.

“In many ways you’re asking a question that is a question for Chinese authorities as to why they may have chosen to seemingly single out Australia in some way for commentary and/or action in different ways,” he said.

Birmingham said there were a number of areas in which China and Australia could continue to successfully cooperate in their mutual interest, particularly at a time when the global economic recovery was so crucial.

He said the Australian government was “so deeply concerned at the fact that the number of regulatory interventions China has taken this year that seem to have disrupted the flow of trade do then undermine that economic cooperation”.

Beijing has taken a series of actions targeting billions of dollars’ worth of Australian exports, although it has generally sought to defend them on technical grounds.

These actions have included tariffs on barley, suspension of beef from several Australia abattoirs, informal advice discouraging the purchase of Australian cotton, putting Australian coal exports in limbo, and launching trade investigations into Australian wine.

More recently, Australian live lobster shipments have been spoiled after experiencing delays on the tarmac in China for extra health-related testing, and some timber imports have been suspended because of pest concerns.

China’s foreign ministry has argued Australia has been a prolific user of “anti-dumping” trade measures against Chinese products over several years, and has defended its own actions as being narrow-reaching by comparison.

Last week the Chinese embassy official told Guardian Australia the Morrison government should reflect on what it could do “to arrest the decline of the bilateral relationship” and create a better mood for talks.

“Of course you can say it takes two people to tango but here, you see, the problem is all caused by the Australian side,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Birmingham, who has been rebuffed in seeking a phone call with the Chinese trade minister, held to his longstanding position that “the ball is in China’s court” for engaging in high-level dialogue.

He said the fact regional and global summits were now being done by video link – such as Apec and G20 over the weekend – added an extra layer of difficulty to resolving the tensions, because there was no opportunity for informal talks on the margins.

Scott Morrison remains in isolation at the Lodge in Canberra and attended the virtual G20 leaders’ summit hosted by Saudi Arabia late on Saturday Australian time and was due to join the talks again remotely later on Sunday.

Morrison is understood to have told fellow leaders the G20 had an important role to provide hope amid efforts to bring the world out of the pandemic and out of the global recession.

There were calls from a number of leaders to push for reforms of the World Trade Organization as part of the global economic recovery, while vaccine access has been a high priority in the G20 talks.

The Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor told the ABC’s Insiders program he hoped Morrison was working to resolve the tensions with China behind the scenes, because primary producers were being adversely affected.

While Australia should not resile from defending its values or speaking up for human rights, O’Connor said the government needed to show “diplomatic deftness”, and the situation was not helped by “offensive and gratuitous comments” made by some Coalition backbenchers.


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