Australia seeks to break coal stalemate with China

Over 50 ships with $670m of Aussie coal stranded off Chinese ports amid tensions

Coal being unloaded at the Ulan Coal mines near the New South Wales rural town of Mudgee in this file picture taken in March 2018. About 1,000 crew members on coal-laden Aussie ships are stuck amid China's blacklisting.
Coal being unloaded at the Ulan Coal mines near the New South Wales rural town of Mudgee in this file picture taken in March 2018. About 1,000 crew members on coal-laden Aussie ships are stuck amid China's blacklisting.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY/BEIJING • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he has appointed his "best people" to work on breaking a stalemate that has seen over 50 ships laden with Australian coal stranded off Chinese ports, as tensions between the two sides rise.

More than US$500 million (S$670 million) worth of Australian coal and about 1,000 crew members on the ships are stuck after China blacklisted a wide swathe of Australian commodities and foodstuff, amid what Mr Morrison described yesterday as an "extraordinary period" in the relationship.

"We'll work the process through with the Chinese government to get the best possible outcome that we can," he said in a Nine Network television interview.

While "there are obviously tensions" in the relationship, he said they would not be "resolved by Australia surrendering its sovereignty".

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said coal shipments were delayed due to strengthening of examination and testing of the imports.

"We found that many coal imports have failed to meet environmental standards," he said at a press briefing, without specifically naming Australia.

It would not be easy to mend ties: Mr Morrison's ministers have had no direct contact with their counterparts in Beijing since at least April. That was when Australia exacerbated existing grievances with China by calling for independent investigators to be allowed into Wuhan to probe the origins of the coronavirus.

As well as the deadlock over Australian coal, Beijing has placed crippling tariffs on Australia's barley exports, halted beef imports from several large Australian meat plants, warned its citizens against holidaying or studying in Australia and ordered traders to stop buying at least seven commodities including copper and wine.

China has become increasingly vocal in recent weeks in saying Australia is to blame for strained ties.

"The root cause of the deteriorating bilateral ties is Australia's repeated wrong acts and remarks on issues concerning China's core interests and major concerns as well as its provocative and confrontational actions," China's embassy in Canberra said in a statement posted on its website on Monday.

Mr Morrison is seeking to create a buffer against what his government sees as an increasingly assertive China by bolstering multilateral forums of "like-minded" liberal democracies in groupings such as the Quad and Five Eyes.

"Of course we want happy co-existence and positive relationship with China," Mr Morrison said yesterday, adding that it was "not simple" to walk a middle path between China and the United States.

"But we also have a wonderful alliance with the US and a friendship with them as like-minded countries with a similar outlook with liberal democratic values," he said. "And then we have our core national interests as well. And we want to see all those managed together."

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2020, with the headline 'Australia seeks to break coal stalemate with China'. Subscribe