Australian minister travels to China seeking ‘unimpeded’ trade

Australia’s Trade Minister Don Farrell aims for safe ‘unimpeded’ trade with China, Australia’s biggest trading partner – Copyright AFP Saeed KHAN

Australia’s trade minister flew to Beijing on Thursday on a mission to demolish all Chinese barriers to imports after years of unofficial sanctions and bans.

Trade Minister Don Farrell said his aim was to secure unrestricted trade with China, Australia’s biggest trading partner with a healthy appetite for its vast resources of iron ore and coal.

“During my visit, I will strongly advocate for the full resumption of unimpeded Australian exports to China, across all sectors,” he said in a statement on the eve of Friday’s meeting.

Farrell, who will meet Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, said a full reopening of trade would benefit exporters and producers in both countries.

The meeting represents “significant progress” in rebuilding the relationship, said Australia China Business Council Chairman David Olsson, who is with the Australian delegation.

It will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two nations’ trade ministers since 2019, he said.

– ‘Important step’ –

“We recognize that this will not happen overnight, but the removal of trade barriers affecting Australian exporters would be seen as an important step in rebuilding confidence,” Olsson said.

China slapped heavy tariffs on key Australian exports such as barley, beef and wine in 2020, showing its willingness to harness its economic muscle at the height of a bitter dispute with the former Conservative government.

It also halted imports of some of Australia’s most important export commodities, including coal, halting multi-billion dollar trade.

China has angered Australia’s legislation against overseas influence operations, banning Huawei from 5G contracts and its call for an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Australia retaliated by complaining to the World Trade Organization, alleging that China had breached international obligations by artificially raising tariffs “without justification.”

– Balancing act –

Their icy relations appear to have thawed since Australia’s centre-left government took a less confrontational approach to China after its election a year ago.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for relations with Australia to “improve” and “develop” in a November 2022 meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

It was the first formal summit between the two countries in more than five years.

China then received its first shipment of Australian coal in February this year, after an unofficial two-year ban.

Trade in other goods also seems to be ready to open up.

“The Australian government is pleased that there have been a number of positive trade developments, including the resumption of trade in coal, cotton and copper and China’s agreement to undertake an expedited review of tariffs on Australian barley,” Farrell said.

Even with the remaining restrictions, two-way trade between the countries was worth A$287 billion (US$195 billion) last year.

– Nuclear powered submarines –

Australia faces a difficult balancing act: China is its biggest trading partner, but also a rival in the battle for diplomatic and military influence in the South Pacific region.

Canberra angered Beijing in March by announcing it would acquire nuclear-powered submarines in a deal with the United States and Britain as part of an ambitious plan to increase Western power in the Asia-Pacific.

Farrell said he would also raise “other issues of importance to Australians”, without elaborating.

Australia last week called for one of its nationals, jailed journalist Cheng Lei, to be reunited with her family after 1,000 days in detention in China.

Cheng, a former anchor for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, disappeared on August 13, 2020, and was later charged with “providing state secrets abroad.”

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