Canberra's ties with Beijing a priority: Minister

Aussie trade official in China to reinforce relations with largest trading partner

SYDNEY • Australia's Trade Minister said yesterday that he will use a visit to China this week to reinforce ties with his country's largest trading partner, following a recent souring in relations.

Mr Steven Ciobo's arrival in Shanghai today marks the first trip by an Australian minister in eight months, part of Canberra's effort to protect access to a market for everything from iron ore to baby formula, analysts said.

"I am not going to paper over the fact that in the past several months, the focus has been on the differences," Mr Ciobo told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in a radio interview.

"I will be ensuring our relationship with China is afforded the priority it deserves."

Mr Ciobo will hold talks with Chinese officials during his three-day visit.

Relations between Australia and China have been tested just two years into a free trade pact after Australian concerns about Chinese influence spurred legislation banning foreign political donations.

China responded with a formal protest and reportedly withheld visas for Australian government officials, jeopardising a biennial trade fair and sparking fears the row could escalate and further threaten ties.

Trade ties are just one aspect of a delicate balancing act for Australia, whose security ties with the United States have limited the closeness of relations with China, analysts said.

Mr Ciobo, the last Australian minister to visit China in September last year, said he will also attend Asia's largest food and beverage exhibition, Sial China.

China bought A$93 billion (S$93.5 billion) worth of Australian goods and services last year, underpinning corporate heavyweights such as miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

Smaller firms, such as food and beverage maker Bellamy's Australia, have also profited from its rising demand.

Trade ties are just one aspect of a delicate balancing act for Australia, whose security ties with the United States have limited the closeness of relations with China, analysts said.

China's construction of islands and military facilities in the South China Sea, through which some US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) in trade passes annually, has fed concern it seeks to curb free movement and extend its strategic reach.

Relations began to sour in November when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, citing "disturbing reports about Chinese influence", proposed to register lobbyists working for foreign countries.

Legislation is set to go to Parliament in weeks.

Australian businesses trading with China warn against anti-China sentiment, and analysts say the government appears to be tempering its tone.

"People could lose jobs if Chinese tourists stop coming," said Professor Nick Bisley, an expert on international relations at Melbourne's La Trobe University.

"Farmers could go broke if China stops buying agricultural goods, and the government is aware of this. This is why it has not continued with the language we saw in 2017."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2018, with the headline 'Canberra's ties with Beijing a priority: Minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe