Australia ‘frustrated’ as China continues to rebuff attempts to talk amid trade tensions

China is still rebuffing Australia’s attempts to talk amid simmering trade tensions, causing frustration inside the government.

Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham spoke at the National Press Club today, where he fielded multiple questions about the poor state of Australia’s relationship with its most important trading partner.

In a candid moment, Mr Birmingham admitted he had been unable to get his counterpart in the Chinese government on the phone in recent months.

“In regards to China. As you say, to talk about your differences, you actually need to talk,” pointed out the Press Club’s President Sabra Lane.

“How frustrating is it for you – because I know you asked, I think it was more than a month ago, to talk to your counterpart in China. Have you actually spoken yet, and how frustrating is it? I’m presuming that you haven’t been able to have that conversation?”

“You presume correct, Sabra,” Mr Birmingham confirmed.

“Look, it’s frustrating. It’s more disappointing, in the sense that I think it is a lost opportunity.

“The best way to resolve and to work through differences is through dialogue. And Australia is ready and willing to have that mature, sensible dialogue that grown-ups have, even when you have differences of opinion.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to change our values or compromise on our policies, but it means we should be able to get back to the basics of looking at the areas that are mutually beneficial to us, where we can agree with one another, and get on with a discussion, and work to enhance and grow the relationship in those positive areas.”

He cited international education as one of those areas, saying it builds crucial “culture and people-to-people ties” between Australia and China.

“Whether we all like it or not, we share the same, dynamic region of the world. The geography isn’t going to change. We’re going to be sharing this region together forever. We want to make sure that, so far as it can be, it is a positive relationship,” he said.

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Trade tensions between the two countries have been bubbling ominously since last month, when China imposed punitive tariffs on Australian barley exporters.

That move was widely interpreted as payback for our government’s decision to publicly support an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the time, Mr Birmingham said Australia was “not interested in a trade war” with China and would not pursue trade policies on a “tit-for-tat basis”.

Even then, he said it was “very disappointing” that China was refusing to schedule minister-to-minister discussions. A month has passed since, without any progress on that front.

The Trade Minister’s implicit plea for China to be a “grown-up” and start talking came less than 24 hours after Foreign Minister Marise Payne called out the Chinese government for using heightened anxiety about the coronavirus to spread disinformation online.

“It is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models,” Ms Payne said last night in a speech to the Australian National University’s National Security College.

“I can assure you that Australia will resist and counter efforts at disinformation.”

She described the current situation – which last week saw Twitter remove more than 32,000 “propaganda” accounts linked to the Chinese, Russian and Turkish governments – as an “infodemic”.

Mr Birmingham was asked about his colleague’s comments at the Press Club.

“Senator Payne obviously made a pretty strong-worded speech last night, again about China. The Global Times and Chinese Foreign Ministry are not afraid to tell us what we need to do in terms of, I guess, accommodating their sort of desires and wishes,” said Australian Financial Review reporter Andrew Tillett.

“What is your message for China? What does China need to do to recognise and respect Australia’s sovereignty and position, given the poor state of the relationship? How does it get righted? If you say Australia’s not going to move, what does China need to do to move?”

“I think the simple answer to that equation is that we have to respect each other’s differences. We are a very different nation to China,” Mr Birmingham replied.

“We’re a democratic nation. They’re not. We have greater civil liberties and a range of ways that aren’t available there. We have different cultures.

“Those differences, if we understand them and respect their sovereignty and the integrity of each other, we can get around dialogue to where our partnership works to mutual advantage.

“That is our key part about the trading relationship, it has been a relationship of mutual advantage that has helped to fuel the growth not only of Australia’s economy, but also of China’s economy.”

Mr Birmingham did give China some praise for lifting “hundreds of millions of people” out of poverty in recent decades, calling it an “economic miracle”.

“To deal with differences, though, you do need to talk,” he added.

“We stand ready to talk and to work through those differences. Not by trading away any of our values and not by compromising on our policy, but by getting back to the basics of respect for each other’s sovereignty, respect for each other in terms of how we can achieve that mutual benefit, and let’s sit down and have that proper, thorough dialogue.”

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