LOS ANGELES – Australia’s trade chief said that the wait for the first meeting with his Chinese counterpart is likely to extend beyond this month because Beijing’s top negotiator will skip a gathering of trade ministers in Indonesia next week.
The government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, which came to power in late May, is seeking to stabilise Australia’s relationship with the world’s second-largest economy and negotiate a recovery in exports, said Mr Don Farrell, the country’s minister for trade and tourism.
Mr Albanese wants to avoid the “megaphone diplomacy” that marked the approach of the previous government, but also won’t take any action that weakens national security or abandons concerns about human rights and China’s arrests of Australian citizens, Mr Farrell said.
“We want to resolve these disputes by discussions with our Chinese counterparts, and we stand ready to talk at any stage with them, about them,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg News last Friday in Los Angeles, on the sidelines of a meeting of Indo-Pacific trade ministers.
“I suppose it’s a case of trying to tone the discussion down so that we can each express our points of view.”
Australia has been attempting to repair damaged diplomatic relations with its largest trading partner since Mr Albanese’s centre-left Labor Party won a national election.
While little progress has been made so far, the Chinese ambassador to Australia has also been calling for a reset, in a sign of thaw.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison’s call for a global probe into the origins of Covid-19 stoked anger from China, which responded with blocks on a raft of Australian exports. While pushing trade with China, Mr Morrison also took a more confrontational tone with Beijing, embracing instead Australia’s relationship with the US.
The previous government’s policies created “a more difficult environment for us to resolve these problems”, Mr Farrell said.
Mr Farrell touted his country’s products including wine, barley, meat and crayfish, saying that Australia would like to be able to sell them again to the nation of 1.4 billion people.
Most China-reliant economy
Despite the friction, China purchased 45 per cent of Australian exports last year, compared with just 14 per cent for second-place Japan, according to data from the International Monetary Fund compiled by Bloomberg. That’s up from 37 per cent in 2017, the year before Mr Morrison took office.
Likewise, 28 per cent of Australia’s imports come from China, compared with 16 per cent from the European Union, the next largest source of foreign goods. The percentage has increased from 23 per cent in 2017.
The country is often described as the world’s most China-reliant economy, and Mr Morrison’s treasurer, Mr Josh Frydenberg, told Bloomberg shortly before this year’s election that he was trying to reduce that dependence.