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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

Australian and Chinese officials to hold critical trade negotiations in China next week

China’s vice-minister of commerce, Wang Shouwen, and Australia’s assistant trade minister, Tim Ayres, shake hands
Stuart Ayres met with China’s vice-minister for commerce, Wang Shouwen, on Wednesday night – the pair’s second meeting after talks on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos in January (above). Photograph: Australian Government

Australian and Chinese officials will meet in Beijing next week in an effort to resolve continuing trade disputes between the two countries.

Australia’s assistant minister for trade, Tim Ayres, said the “highly technical discussions” loomed as the next opportunity for Australia to make progress with its largest trading partner.

But he added: “I’ve learned not to count my chickens before they hatch.”

Ayres spoke to Guardian Australia from China after attending the Bo’ao Forum for Asia business conference where he held talks with his Chinese government counterpart.

The NSW senator said the trade impediments were “damaging” for regional Australian communities “where they haven’t been able to find alternative [export] markets, particularly wine and lobsters”.

“But it’s bad for Chinese consumers, too. I can tell you there’s a lot of interest in Australian wine and Australian seafood here in Bo’ao among the Chinese business community,” Ayres said.

The Chinese government rolled out hefty tariffs, unofficial bans or other restrictions against a range of Australian export sectors at the height of diplomatic tensions in 2020, including wine, barley, coal, timber and lobster.

While some progress has been made in recent months, such as the resumption of the coal trade, the wine and barley tariff disputes are considered more complex, with World Trade Organization rulings due in coming months.

Next week’s discussions in Beijing will include officials from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and China’s Ministry of Commerce.

It is understood the talks stem from an agreement between the Australian trade minister, Don Farrell, and the Chinese commerce minister, Wang Wentao, when they met virtually on 6 February.

The pair agreed to enhance dialogue at all levels to pave the way to a timely and full resumption of trade. There is growing speculation Farrell and Wang could meet in person in China in the coming weeks.

Ayres met China’s vice-minister for commerce, Wang Shouwen, on Wednesday night for 30 minutes. It was the pair’s second meeting after they held talks on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

Ayres said the talks at a ministerial level aimed to “confirm the track that we’re on” and to “make sure that we’re continuing with momentum” while officials discussed the technical details.

Ayres also confirmed he had raised the cases of the detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei and writer Dr Yang Jun during the meeting on Wednesday.

Ayres said he did not believe the announcement of the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine plans three weeks ago would disrupt efforts to stabilise the relationship.

The Chinese government has argued Australia’s deal with the US and the UK reflects a “cold war mentality” and “opens a Pandora’s box, which will seriously impact regional and global peace and security”.

But Ayres said the Aukus arrangements had been “very well known for 18 months” since “the previous government announced them and we supported them”.

“We’ve been utterly transparent … and I don’t think it’s come as a surprise to anybody in the region.”

Ayres was tight-lipped on whether this week’s talks canvassed China’s bid to join the regional trade pact known as the CPTPP.

On Friday, the 11-member strong trade bloc – which includes Australia, Japan, Vietnam, Canada and New Zealand – substantially concluded negotiations to allow the UK to join.

Ayres said the CPTPP was “regularly the subject of discussion between China and Australia” but the existing members were determined to maintain a “very high standard” for entry.

“Countries that apply to join have to be able to demonstrate not just compliance, but also a track record of compliance and a high-standard approach to global trade agreements,” he said.

The comments suggest Australia is not ready to support China’s entry to the CPTPP.

But Ayres said climate and energy were areas where Australia and China “can and should cooperate”. The Australian government was keen to hear practical proposals from businesses and officials about opportunities to cooperate on decarbonisation.

“If this region of the world, China, the Asia-Pacific, the Indo-Pacific – if it doesn’t meet the climate imperative itself, with an enormous growing demand for energy, then it’s hard to see how the world reaches its climate objectives,” Ayres said.

He said Australian businesses and workers stood to gain from pursuing a “renewable energy superpower vision”, including developing green hydrogen and building up technical capabilities.

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