Feb 5, 2023
Australia, China Trade Ministers Hold First Meeting Since 2019
(Bloomberg) -- China and Australia’s top trade officials have met for the first time since 2019, in the latest sign of warming diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and Trade Minister Don Farrell held virtual talks on Monday for more than 90 minutes, according to an Australian government statement that confirms a report by Bloomberg News. Both sides agreed to “enhance dialogue” with the aim of ensuring “the timely and full resumption of trade,” the statement said.
During the talks, Farrell accepted an invitation from his Chinese counterpart to visit Beijing in the near future for further discussions, saying in a statement that the meeting “represents another important step in the stabilization of Australia’s relations with China.”
Farrell previously said he would be using the call with Wang to discuss the ongoing sanctions against Australian exports including wine, barley and lobsters.
China is willing to restart communications on trade and economic affairs with Australia, Wang told Farrell on the call, according to a statement from the Chinese Commerce Ministry released Monday afternoon. The two had candid and pragmatic talks, it said, adding that Wang called the meeting an important step to get economic and trade relations back on the right track.
Beijing imposed trade sanctions on a range of Australian exports in 2020, following a call by then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19. The Australian side had downplayed the likelihood of an imminent removal of restrictions following Monday’s bilateral meeting, but relations have steadily improved between Canberra and Beijing since the May election of Australia’s center-left Labor government.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the November Group of 20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, and talks have already taken place between the countries’ top defense and foreign affairs officials. There have been other signs of trade relations thawing this year, with reports of Chinese companies restarting imports of Australian coal.
Bulk carrier Magic Eclipse is due to arrive in China on Feb. 8 carrying a shipment of Australian metallurgical coal, while three other coal vessels have left Newcastle near Sydney destined for China’s ports, according to vessel data analyzed by Bloomberg.
For its part, Beijing has complained about the treatment of Chinese companies in Australia, including the exclusion of Huawei Technologies Co. from participating in building a 5G network and the blocking of a planned deal for China Mengniu Dairy Co. to buy a local drinks company.
China is highly concerned about the security screening of Chinese firms investing and operating in Australia, Wang told Farrell on Monday, adding that he hoped Australia can appropriately handle relevant cases and offer a fair, open, and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese firms. The agreement last month by China’s Tianqi Lithium Corp. to purchase an Australian lithium explorer may be an attempt to test an improvement in that environment.
Any deal would require the approval of Australian regulators. The government in Canberra has already said it plans to be more assertive in scrutinizing foreign investments into key commodities such as lithium, with Treasurer Jim Chalmers saying in late 2022 that China’s dominance of the supply chains for electric vehicle batteries poses “challenges and risks.”
China-Australia Ties Proceeding in ‘Right Direction,’ Xi Says
There’s never been any official confirmation of a ban on imports of lobster or coal and China has continued to insist that its trade restrictions are in line with World Trade Organization rules.
Speaking in Canberra in January, China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian said there was “no such thing” as official trade sanctions on Australia. He added if Chinese companies wanted to purchase Australian coal, that was a decision for them.
--With assistance from James Mayger, Ann Koh, Kevin Varley and Fran Wang.
(Updates with charts, details of call, coal trade and foreign investments.)
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