Major update in Australia-China relations

SINGAPORE-AUSTRALIA COMMITTEE
Trade Minister Don Farrell is on a two-day trip to China to progress trade talks. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

China’s foreign minister will visit Australia in July, in an important development in thawing the tense relations between the two countries.

Trade Minister Don Farrell, who is on a two-day trip to China’s capital in an effort to further trade talks, confirmed China’s Foreign Minister Qin Jang will visit Australia in July.

The trip follows Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong meeting her counterpart in China last December.

In another promising sign, Senator Farrell earlier on Friday was given a surprise and rare tour of the Forbidden City, one of Beijing’s most important historical sites, by a senior Chinese Commerce Ministry official.

Trade Minister Don Farrell was given a rare tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing as a guest of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey
Trade Minister Don Farrell was given a rare tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing as a guest of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey
It’s seen as a positive development in relations between Australia and China. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey
It’s seen as a positive development in relations between Australia and China. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey

Senator Farrell’s visit hopes to make progress on the long-running trade stoush with the hope China will remove its damaging tariffs on Australian exports such as lobster and wine in the near future.

In a meeting with Commerce Minister Wang Wentao later on Friday, Senator Farrell said he should visit Adelaide and stay at the Farrell family’s winery in the Clare Valley.

“There’s a good pattern there. The foreign minister is coming so can I formally invite you to come to Australia and in particular come to Adelaide and South Australia,” Senator Farrell said.

Friday‘s meeting was set to discuss damaging trade sanctions imposed on Australian exports to China, as well as the stabilisation of relations between the two countries.

Mr Wang welcomed “positive progress” after years of escalating tensions.

“China and Australia are important countries in the Asia Pacific. We do not have fundamental conflicts of interest,” he said.

“We need to see our differences and divergence in perspective, improve and maintain our bilateral economic relations.

“This is in our fundamental interests.”

Trade Minister Don Farrell later held talks with China’s commerce minister. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey
Trade Minister Don Farrell later held talks with China’s commerce minister. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey

He said Australia was concerned about its products in Chinese markets, but Chinese producers wanted full and fair access to Australian consumers as well.

“Looking into the future, to maintain a good bilateral economic and trade relationship needs our joint efforts.”

Punishing tariffs have badly hurt wine, barley and other exports from Australia, part of a campaign of economic sanctions over anti-foreign interference efforts, pushback to the Huawei 5G ban and Australia’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meeting was expected to discuss the issues “line-by-line”.

The minister said he was very privileged to be given the special tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing as a guest of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey
The minister said he was very privileged to be given the special tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing as a guest of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Credit: DFAT Michael Godfrey

Speaking to travelling Australian journalists at the opulent 15th century palace, Senator Farrell said he was very privileged to have been invited to visit the “iconic site”.

“I’d just like to say just how much we appreciate the organisation by the Minister of Commerce ... for organising this very special trip,” he said.

Asked whether the unexpected invitation to the Forbidden City was a good sign for his subsequent meeting with Mr Wang, Senator Farrell responded with a quip.

“Well, I’ll tell you what’s a good sign. As I got out of the car and started walking down here I heard a crow crow and of course I’m an ambassador for the Adelaide Crows, so I think it was a very propitious indication of good luck to hear a crow,” he said.

Friday’s tour of the Forbidden City was Senator Farrell’s second visit to the World Heritage site after visiting as a tourist in 2005 with his wife and daughter.

Australian officials said the tour was a “welcome development” after earlier playing down expectations for the afternoon’s formal talks aimed at resolving Chinese trade bans on Australian products worth an estimated $20bn a year.

Senator Farrell will meet with Chinese and Australian business representatives in addition to the formal meeting with Mr Wang. He toured the high-end April Gourmet supermarket in Beijing earlier on Friday.

The chain works with Australians suppliers including Coles and sells popular Australian products such as Leggos pasta sauce, Penfolds wine, Coopers beers and frozen steak.

Senator Farrell noted Penfolds wine products in the store. The 2018 vintage was stockpiled by Chinese suppliers to get around the trade bans.

Later he met executives of state-owned enterprise China Oil and Foodstuff Corporation, the largest foodstuff and agriculture supplier in China. The company is also the largest Chinese importer of Australian wheat and oat.

Senator Farrell will use the talks to reiterate that Australia is a reliable supplier of safe and high quality agricultural products. Many Chinese consumers look for Australian brands already, but trade has been badly limited by the bilateral dispute.

Officials are playing down the chance of a major breakthrough in the tensions between Canberra and Beijing this week, but the visit is considered a step in the right direction for the Australian side.

“The fact that they’ve invited me here, the fact that on a Friday afternoon, the minister is giving up his afternoon and evening to meet with me and to have some discussions, I think is very, very positive,” Senator Farrell said on Friday.

“I think it augurs well for the future of our relationship with the China.”

Senator Farrell is in China to further progress talks on resuming normal trade.
Senator Farrell is in China to further progress talks on resuming normal trade.

Friday’s meeting is the 16th Joint Ministerial Economic Commission, last held in 2017. This week is the first time since 2019 that an Australian trade minister has been invited to China.

There is growing expectation Anthony Albanese will be invited to Beijing later this year, potentially to mark the 50th anniversary of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam’s landmark trip in 1973.

Speaking to reporters in Sydney on Friday, the Prime Minister said Senator Farrell’s visit to China was “a good thing” and his government “welcomed dialogue” between Beijing and Canberra.

“I have said you don’t achieve anything by having no discussion,” Mr Albanese said.

“What we need is to develop an understanding and dialogue and I have said we will co-operate with China where we can, we will disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.”

Additional reporting: Ben Packham and Tom McIlroy in Beijing.