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Australia: Reports of looming China trade bans ‘deeply troubling’

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Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham on Friday said that ongoing reports of bans and disruptions to the country’s key exports to China were “deeply troubling.”

Chinese authorities are reportedly planning to halt around 6 billion dollars’ (4.4 billion US dollars) worth of imports of Australian wine, lobsters, sugar, coal, copper, barley and timber.

The reports from industry, as well as Chinese state-run tabloid The Global Times, have not been confirmed by Beijing.

In a morning interview with national broadcaster ABC, Birmingham said that although China has denied taking discriminatory actions against Australia, it “doesn’t seem to be what industry is seeing and hearing at present.”

“There’s a lot of inconsistency in what we see and hear,” Birmingham said.

“We hope that the Chinese government is true to its word and that these issues can be resolved, but there’s no denying the fact that the range and extent of concerns that industry are hearing is deeply troubling.”

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This week, millions of dollars’ worth of Australian rock lobster was hit with customs restrictions.

Barley and timber imports were also held up, with Chinese customs claiming that shipments may have been contaminated.

Relations between China and Australia have become increasingly strained this year, after Canberra supported US calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent months, China has placed trade restrictions on Australian wine, barley and beef. Concerns have also been raised over changes to coal and cotton export conditions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday said he takes China’s denials of trade strikes and singling out Australian products “at face value.”

However opposition Labor Party lawmakers have called on Morrison to “stand up for Australian exporters.”

“Labor is deeply concerned by reports that Chinese authorities are planning to halt imports of Australian wine, lobsters, sugar, coal, copper, barley and timber,” the opposition foreign affairs, agriculture and trade ministers said in a joint statement.

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“Mr Morrison must explain to the Australian people what these new restrictions mean for jobs, what he is going to do to help our exporters.”

Birmingham later downplayed concerns, telling reporters in Adelaide that he welcomed that “Chinese authorities have denied some of the rumours of instructions being given to businesses to ban Australia’s imports into China.”

He also indicated that he was yet to speak to his Chinese counterpart, saying “it is disappointing that China refuses to engage at a ministerial level.”

China is Australia’s largest trading partner. In 2018-2019, China bought around 26 per cent of exports, valued at 235 billion Australian dollars.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud on Friday said that although he was “concerned about the trade implications at the moment” it was import to work with fact, not the “rumours swirling around.”

He told ABC that Australian officials in Beijing would continue to seek clarity from their Chinese counterparts.

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Earlier in the week Littleproud warned that if Australia was being singled out, it would be in breach of free trade agreements.

He said the government would consider taking action with an independent umpire – which would be the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“We play by WTO rules and we expect countries we trade with to do that,” Littleproud said.

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