China-Australia relations: Canberra denies ‘playing the victim’ in trade dispute with Beijing

Andrew Mullen
·4-min read

Trade Minister Dan Tehan has denied Australia is “playing the victim” in its relationship with China amid their ongoing trade dispute.

Tehan was responding to an editorial on Monday in China’s nationalist tabloid, the Global Times, that said Australia appeared “to be pulling another publicity stunt” and “publicly whining” after the minister said he had not received a reply to a letter he sent to China’s new commerce minister, Wang Wentao, last month.

Having replaced Simon Birmingham as trade minister during a cabinet reshuffle at the end of last year, Tehan’s overture came at a time when relations between China and Australia are significantly strained after a dispute that began to deteriorate in April last year.

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I think it would be great if we could have a trade ministers meeting to talk through our differences and make sure where we have those mutually beneficial relationships that we can discuss ways in which we can improve that

Dan Tehan

“There was a change in commerce minister in China, and what I’ve done is I’ve reached out and I wrote a very detailed letter to him welcoming him on his new appointment and just saying that I was very keen to have a constructive engagement with him because there are lots of areas where we have mutual benefit in our relationship, and so I wanted to work with him and also wanted to work through these issues that we have with these current trade disputes,” Tehan told Sydney’s 2GB radio station on Tuesday.

“It’s over three years, nearly three and a half years, since we have had an official trade ministers meeting with China and that is something I think we should be seeking to address and I think it would be great if we could have a trade ministers meeting to talk through our differences and make sure where we have those mutually beneficial relationships that we can discuss ways in which we can improve that.”

The China and Australia relationship has soured in the past year after Canberra pushed for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic without consulting Beijing. In early November, China unofficially banned Australian imports of coal, sugar, barley, lobsters, wine, copper and log timber.

Although final export figures have yet to be confirmed, based on preliminary data released last week, Australia’s total goods exported to China last year reached A$145.2 billion (US$110.9 billion), just 2.16 per cent less than 2019’s A$148.4 billion, which was the highest recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics since 1988.

“China is our largest two-way trading partner, 251 billion [Australian] dollars is that trading relationship, so we have a lot in common and a lot what we send to them is beneficial to them and a lot of that they send to us is beneficial, so there is a lot we can work together on,” said Tehan.

Prior to his departure, Birmingham said in November that Australia was “willing to have that dialogue” after insisting that he and other Australian government ministers were willing to take phone calls and engage with their Chinese counterparts.

We’ll also make sure that as part of our trading relationship that we are also seeking new opportunities

Dan Tehan

Australia, though, has shown its desire to not solely rely on its relationship with China for trade, and has been exploring options with other trading partners.

“The prime minister even [on Monday] made it very clear that we would welcome minster-to-minster or leader-to-leader dialogue [with China], so that’s something that the Australian government wants to do, but we’ll also make sure that as part of our trading relationship that we are also seeking new opportunities as well, and that’s why I have already been in discussions with my counterpart in the UK about a UK free-trade agreement. I’ll be having discussions with the European Union next week about a European Union free trade agreement,” said Tehan.

“There are opportunities, further opportunities in India, although we’ll have to be patient there, but we need to explore those opportunities because India’s economy continues to grow.

“Vietnam and obviously the new Biden administration presents a new way for us to work with the US government as well, so there is a lot for us to be doing.”

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