ABC Radio National AM with Sabra Lane

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Trade relations with China, Chinese detention of Australian citizens, Australia-European Union Free Trade Agreement.

Sabra Lane, host: A new waiting game has started in the long trade dispute between Australia and China. Beijing’s decision last week to end tariffs on Australian barley is raising hopes that wine could be the next item that China removes sanctions from.

The federal Trade Minister is Don Farrell, and we spoke earlier. Senator Farrell, it’s taken years to get the Chinese bans on barley removed. Australia’s got a case before the World Trade Organization over wine. Realistically how quickly could wine be sorted out?

Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: Well, we’re hoping to do that as quickly as possible. I’ve said right from the time that we decided to suspend the barley dispute at the WTO that if that was successful, and of course last Friday it was successful - the Chinese Government lifted the 80.5 per cent tariff on Australian barley. I’ve indicated that I believe that that’s then a template to deal with the issue of wine. So, we’ll be seeking to have some further discussions with my Chinese counterpart to see how quickly we can make progress on the issue of wine tariffs.

Sabra Lane: How soon would those discussions take place? And there are no guarantees it will follow that template?

Minister for Trade: No, there are no guarantees, but our whole process over the last 15 months has been to try and stabilise our relationship with the Chinese government to get them to remove the trade impediments that have been a blockage in our relationship over that period of time. Bit by bit that process has been working. So, I’m reasonably confident that with a bit of goodwill that we can resolve the remaining trade impediments. It’s going to be very important for the stabilisation of our relationship that we remove those impediments, and we’d like them removed as quickly as possible.

Sabra Lane: And the talks that you’re hoping to have over that? Are we talking weeks or months?

Minister for Trade: I’m happy to talk at any time that the Chinese Government is free to talk. I’ve established a warm and friendly relationship with my counterpart, Minister Wentao. We have invited him to come to Australia and he’s accepted that invitation. It’s now really a question of timing as to his availability. But we’ll continue to talk with them. Right from the start we’ve said that we’d much prefer dialogue and discussion to disputation to resolve these issues, and, well I guess the evidence is there that that process does work if you’re prepared to be patient and persistent.

Sabra Lane: Beef, cotton, and seafood all still need to be sorted out as well. What do you think the lesson is from this episode?

Minister for Trade: Look, I mean, China continues to be our largest trading partner. Last year two-way trade was almost $300 billion. That’s more than the United States, Japan, Korea, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, in terms of our trading relationship. It’s a very important market, and we have to ensure that trade continues. But it’s a two-way thing.

Sabra Lane: Are you suggesting there that it’s a bit risky relying on one big customer?

Minister for Trade: We’ve said right from the start that we think the way forward is to ensure diversification. That doesn’t mean selling any less to China, what it means, is that we expand our trading relationships. In the last few months, we’ve established a free trade agreement with India, a very important market, you know, the world’s largest population now, and with the United Kingdom. The difficult one, of course, is the EU - 450 million people, and a $24 trillion economy. We’re working hard there to try and resolve some of the outstanding issues and get a free trade agreement with the Europeans.

Sabra Lane: We’ll get to that in a tick. Two Australians, Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun remain detained in China. Is there any sign that authorities are actually listening to the Albanese Government’s call for them to be released? What hope, if any, can you give to their families?

Minister for Trade: It’s a terrible situation that they should be under arrest in China. In all of my discussions with my counterpart, I’ve raised the issue, and I know the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have done the same. We continue to make representations on behalf of those individuals, and keep our fingers crossed that we can resolve those issues.

Sabra Lane: The talks with the European Union over the free trade deal broke off a couple of weeks ago. Why did those negotiations fall apart?

Minister for Trade: Look, the Europeans were offering too little and demanding too much. It was a pretty simple process. I wouldn’t describe it as having broken off; we did agree that we would continue the negotiations, and I’m hopeful that at a mutually convenient time, sometime this month, we can continue those negotiations. They’re important for Australia, but we’ve said all along that we want meaningful access to European agricultural markets, and we’re going to continue to say that until such time as we get an agreement.

Sabra Lane: Don Farrell, thanks for talking to AM.

Minister for Trade: Nice talking with you Sabra.

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