Aussies take row with China over barley tariffs to WTO

Canberra's appeal to world trade body set to worsen already strained ties with Beijing

SYDNEY • Canberra is launching a formal appeal to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), seeking a review of Beijing's decision to impose hefty tariffs on imports of Australian barley.

Acknowledging that the appeal may take years to be resolved, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham yesterday said Australia had little choice after China in May imposed five years of anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties totalling 80.5 per cent on Australian barley - effectively stopping a billion-dollar trade in its tracks.

"Australia has an incredibly strong case to mount in relation to defending the integrity and proprietary of our grain growers and barley producers," the minister said.

The appeal to the independent trade body threatens to further stoke bilateral tensions that have already seen China impose tariffs on a range of Australian commodities, while diplomatic communication has been limited.

The relationship with China, already rocky after Australia in 2018 banned Huawei from its nascent 5G broadband network, cooled further after Canberra called this year for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, first reported in central China last year.

China has since limited beef imports, imposed tariffs on Australian wine and told its millers to stop buying Australian cotton.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing declined to comment on Australia's planned WTO appeal.

"I just want to stress that the Australian government should take China's concerns seriously, and take concrete actions to correct its discriminatory actions against Chinese companies," said ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin at a regular briefing.

While some have said that Australia should seek a truce with China, Canberra's Conservative government is under growing pressure from farmers who face five years without being able to sell to what has been their most lucrative market.

"It is imperative that we support the liberalisation of global trade and the rules that govern it," said National Farmers Federation chief executive Fiona Simson in an e-mailed statement issued after Mr Birmingham announced the WTO move.

About 70 per cent of Australian exports of the grain typically go to China, Australian data shows.

The effective block on sales to China also comes as Australian barley production is expected to hit nearly 12 million tonnes this crop year, after rain revived some of the biggest growing regions following years of drought.

Government sources, however, have warned that the WTO action would not yield quick results. The first stage of the appeal will seek formal talks between Australia and China, which are not expected until early next year.

"We appealed a few months ago and they rejected that. So it seems unlikely that China will admit they were wrong," said one person familiar with the details of the case who declined to be named.

Should talks between Australia and China fail to yield a result, an independent panel of experts will be set up to look into the issue. Australia expects this could take several years.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2020, with the headline 'Aussies take row with China over barley tariffs to WTO'. Subscribe