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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Daniel Hurst

Australian and Chinese trade ministers meet for first time in three years

Australian trade minister, Don Farrell, (left) speaks with China’s minister of commerce, Wang Wentao, during a meeting via teleconference at parliament house on Monday.
Australian trade minister, Don Farrell, (left) speaks with China’s minister of commerce, Wang Wentao, during a meeting via teleconference at Parliament House on Monday. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The Australian trade minister, Don Farrell, will fly to Beijing “in the near future” after attending the first meeting between an Australian trade minister and a Chinese commerce minister in three years.

Farrell, who was in Canberra for the resumption of parliament, met virtually with his counterpart, Wang Wentao, for about 90 minutes on Monday.

While the meeting did not produce a breakthrough, Farrell said the talks were “another important step in the stabilisation of Australia’s relations with China” and he identified climate change as an area for closer cooperation.

“I accepted an invitation from Minister Wang to travel to Beijing in the near future to continue our productive dialogue,” Farrell said in a statement after the meeting.

It will be the first visit to China by an Australian trade minister since Simon Birmingham’s trip to Shanghai in November 2019. Farrell’s visit follows the trip by the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, in December 2022.

The Australians used Monday’s meeting to push for the removal of China’s tariffs and bans on key export sectors.

“Our discussion covered a range of trade and investment issues, including the need for resumption of unimpeded trade for Australian exporters so that Chinese consumers can continue to benefit from high quality Australian products,” Farrell said.

“Minister Wang and I agreed to enhance dialogue at all levels, including between officials, as a pathway towards the timely and full resumption of trade.”

At the height of diplomatic tensions between China and Australia in 2020, Beijing blocked phone calls and meetings between Australian government ministers and their direct counterparts as a result of the then-Morrison government’s early push for a Covid origins inquiry.

The Morrison government accused Beijing of engaging in “economic coercion” by rolling out tariffs or unofficial bans on a range of Australian exports, including wine, barley, red meat, lobsters and coal.

Former Coalition trade ministers Birmingham and Dan Tehan were rebuffed in their attempts to hold direct talks with China’s commerce minister.

Chinese officials had argued the Australian government must first take steps “to arrest the decline of the bilateral relationship” and create a better mood for talks.

Farrell, however, received a congratulatory letter from Wang shortly after being appointed as trade minister last year and responded to that correspondence.

Farrell has continued to push Australia’s largest trading partner to remove the trade “blockages”, arguing it would be in both countries’ interests to do so.

At the beginning of the meeting, Farrell told Wang the trade blockages in recent years had been “to the detriment of both countries”.

Wang replied that he was “very happy to have this virtual meeting with you” and was “looking forward to meeting with you in person at the earliest time”.

Wang said the two sides needed to “work together to bring more positive factors” into the economic relationship, but cautioned that “this meeting cannot resolve all of these issues”. He argued the initial emphasis should be on building mutual trust.

“I would like to work together with you to bring our economic cooperation back to the correct track,” Wang said.

Later on Monday, Farrell said the pair had “agreed to explore further opportunities for cooperation on a wider range of issues, including climate change and support for business delegations to further strengthen links between our countries”.

Farrell also noted China’s international border was now open and said Australia “looks forward to welcoming Chinese tourists and students back to our shores, as we did with over 1.4 million Chinese visitors in 2019”.

Birmingham, who is now the opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, told the ABC he welcomed China’s willingness to return to dialogue, but Australian exporters were still feeling the pain from Beijing’s “attempted economic coercion”.

Comment has been sought from the Chinese embassy.

China has previously accused Australia of taking a hostile approach to Chinese investment in the country, including through the ban on Chinese telco Huawei in the 5G network.

The Albanese government maintains that it has not given ground on Australia’s national interests or policy positions, but it has pursued a deliberate effort to engage in dialogue with China to try to get the relationship on a better footing.

The government acknowledges stark differences will endure between the two countries, but believes these differences should be managed “wisely”.

China’s vice-minister of commerce, Wang Shouwen, and Australia’s assistant trade minister, Tim Ayres, in Davos last month.
China’s vice-minister of commerce, Wang Shouwen, and Australia’s assistant trade minister, Tim Ayres, in Davos last month. Photograph: Australian Government

China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, revealed last month that Chinese and Australian negotiators at the World Trade Organization in Geneva were engaged in talks in an effort to resolve their trade disputes.

After reports China was considering lifting its restrictions on coal imports from Australia from April, Xiao also expressed hope for an overall improvement in the trading relationship in 2023.

Both sides laid the groundwork for Monday’s meeting by holding talks between Australia’s assistant trade minister, Tim Ayres, and China’s vice-minister of commerce, Wang Shouwen, in Davos last month.

Earlier on Monday, the Australian foreign affairs minister, Wong, called on the US and China to remain in dialogue despite the flare up in tensions after the US shot down what it labelled a Chinese spy balloon that flew over American territory.

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