Australia demands end to ‘unjustified trade strikes’ after China ends diplomatic freeze

オーストラリアの外務大臣, ペニーウォン, has vowed to take every opportunity to demand the Chinese government scrap “unjustified trade strikes” after Beijing ended a diplomatic freeze lasting more than two years.

Australian analysts welcomed the opening of lines of communication with China after the defence ministers met in Singapore on Sunday, but cautioned against any expectations of a substantial “reset” as big differences remain.

Chinese state media suggested on Monday that Australia should walk away from groupings such as Aukus and the Quad “to repair ties with China” – policy shifts that the Albanese government has ruled out.

Wong said the Australian government believed dialogue was “in the interests of both countries” but indicated the substantive positions had not changed.

“We will always stand up for Australia’s values and interests – whether it’s human rights, the South China Sea or transparent, rules-based trade,” Wong said on Monday.

As the federal opposition urged the government not to make any concessions to China, Wong said Australia would “take every opportunity to advocate for Australian exporters and to call for the removal of unjustified trade strikes”.

The next possibility for a high-level meeting is in Geneva, where the Australian trade minister, Don Farrell, and China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, are both attending a World Trade Organization ministerial conference.

Farrell, who will be in Geneva until Thursday, has indicated he wishes to engage with Wang, who previously rebuffed former trade minister Dan Tehan’s requests for dialogue.

The former Australian government repeatedly complained that China’s trade actions against a range of sectors – including wine, オオムギ, シーフード, coal and red meat – amounted to a campaign of “economic coercion” to pressure Australia to make policy changes.

Tariffs, unofficial bans and stricter screening measures – defended by China on technical grounds – were rolled out in 2020 as relations between the two countries hit their lowest level in decades.

Beijing objected to Australia’s early public call for an independent investigation into the origins and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the blocking of Chinese foreign investment on national security grounds.

In a now-infamous document – dubbed a “list of grievances” by Australian media – China outlined 14 areas of friction in the relationship such as Australia’s laws against foreign interference “targeting China” and the ban on Chinese telco Huawei in the 5G rollout.

Other items included “unfriendly” Australian media reports, and “outrageous condemnation of the governing party of China by MPs”. The release of the list helped galvanise resolve among the major parties in Canberra to stand firm.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday night that a “sound and steady” relationship with Australia was in both countries’ interests.

Shortly after last month’s election, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, sent a congratulatory message to the prime minister, 「非常に無礼」, saying Beijing was “ready to work with the Australian side” to look to the future.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, 汪文欣, said Albanese had since sent a “letter of reply to express appreciation” to Li but did not elaborate on its contents or timing.

Wang called on the Australian government to look at China “in a sensible and positive way” and seek “common ground while putting aside differences”.

The comments come after Australia’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles, had a “frank” hour-long discussion with China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday.

The meeting was notable because China has not allowed phone calls or meetings between Australian ministers and their direct counterparts since early 2020. Chinese officials had repeatedly argued Canberra must take steps to foster a “better mood” as a precondition for high-level dialogue resuming.

Marles said he had “raised a number of issues of concern to Australia” including China’s interception of an Australian P-8 aircraft over the South China Sea last month and the need to ensure Pacific island countries “are not put in a position of increased militarisation”.

Marles arrived in Japan on Monday for talks with the Japanese defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, whom he also met in Singapore. Marles said Australia and Japan share “a vision for an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, one where the sovereignty of all states is respected”.

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, said Sunday’s talks signalled Australia’s relationship with China was “no longer in freefall” but it would be wrong to “over-interpret one meeting”.

McGregor said China would “continue to challenge us in the South China Sea” and “protest against the Quad” and would object to Australia speaking up about Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“It’s definitely true that China had given up on the Morrison government and they’re willing to test what they can get out of the new Labor government … and see whether they can modify Australia’s behaviour in any substantive fashion,” McGregor said.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Dennis Richardson, a former defence department secretary, told ABC TV it “would be wishful thinking to think that the Chinese will stop their aggressive behaviour” in the South China Sea.

Richardson said while he did not expect any changes to the trade sanctions to come quickly, Beijing might consider adjustments over time.

The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Simon Birmingham, welcomed the meeting between Marles and Wei as “positive”.

He said the former Australian government had repeatedly sought ministerial dialogue but China’s decision to block such efforts were “deeply frustrating and frankly self-defeating”.

“It was a reflection upon China that they were unwilling to do so, and whatever preference or otherwise they may have for a government in Australia frankly shouldn’t come into play on these sorts of matters,” the former trade minister told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Birmingham said the test of dialogue would be outcomes, and Australia should “not be giving any concessions to China”.

A Chinese state-run tabloid, the Global Times, quoted analysts on Monday as saying Australia should cease “embroiling itself in an unnecessary arms race” and “picturing China as its imaginary enemy”.

Song Zhongping, a military expert and commentator, told the paper it “would be wise” for Australia to leave “anti-China groupings and alliances such as the Aukus, if it intends to repair ties with China”.

Wei warned in a speech to the conference in Singapore on Sunday that China would “fight to the very end” to stop Taiwan from declaring independence.