Australia gets silent treatment from China on urgent trade talk request

China has suspended imports of beef from four Australian producers. (AP pic)

SYDNEY: China has not responded to a request for urgent talks after Australia’s key agriculture exports were hit with suspensions and tariff threats, said Australia’s trade minister, as ties strain over Canberra’s call for a coronavirus pandemic inquiry.

Australia is pushing for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak to help prevent future pandemics, but the move has angered China, its largest trading partner, which believes such a call is anti-China propaganda.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on Wednesday he had not received a reply after requesting a call with Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan after four large beef exporters were suspended this week by Chinese customs authorities.

“The ball is very much in the court of the Chinese government,” Birmingham told ABC television. “We have made it very clear that I am available and keen to have a discussion.”

The beef suspensions revealed on Tuesday came just days after China proposed introducing a tariff of up to 80% on Australian barley shipments, raising concerns they were retaliatory actions by Beijing for Australia’s push for an inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak.

Chinese officials had said “privately and publicly these are unconnected matters”, Birmingham earlier told television network Seven, adding that Australia sought a respectful relationship with China.

Birmingham has said the beef ban was linked to issues with labelling and health certificates, while the barley tariffs were related to an anti-dumping case.

The nationalist Global Times newspaper, affiliated with the official People’s Daily, said in an editorial on Wednesday the suspensions of the meat processors should serve as a “wake-up call” for Australia for its unfriendly actions, and “concern over potential retaliatory measures from China seems totally justified given Australia’s heavy economic reliance on China”.

Australia’s National Farmers’ Federation President Fiona Simson said the industry was concerned about disruptions to trade with China, which took a third of Australia’s farm exports, including 18% of beef production.

Last month, Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye warned that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian products if Australia pursued the coronavirus inquiry.

Australian government ministers described his comments as a threat of economic coercion from the country that took around 38% of all exports in 2019.

Australian Grape and Wine Chief Executive Tony Battaglene said winemakers were worried they could become embroiled in the dispute given the Chinese ambassador had cited wine as a potential target, but said there had been no sign of this yet.

“We are hopeful the language has become more tempered,” Battaglene said.

Dairy Connect Chief Executive Shaughn Morgan said dairy farmers, who export a third of produce, were unaffected and the Chinese market was “highly valued and important for the long term sustainability of the industry in Australia”.

Birmingham and Foreign Minister Marise Payne both said there was international support for an inquiry, and Australia will support a European Union resolution on a review at the World Health Assembly on May 17.

“We’re very encouraged by the positive feedback we have had from many international counterparts … in relation to the need for an independent review,” Payne told Sky News, adding that there was no rush to set up an inquiry.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who has been heavily criticised by Beijing for his attacks on China, has praised Australia for calling for an inquiry and urged “every country” to demand answers.

New Zealand and Britain have offered support.