China says Australia knows what it needs to do to improve ties

Ties between the two countries have worsened rapidly after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.
Ties between the two countries have worsened rapidly after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China indicated that it wants Australia to act to improve strained relations, saying that Canberra should know what needs to be done to get ties back on track.

"China has been pragmatic in growing its business relations with all partners. A healthy relationship needs the nurturing and care of both sides," Assistant Minister of Commerce Li Chenggang said on Wednesday (Nov 11) at a press conference in Beijing.

"Australia should know more clearly than China what it needs to do to improve this relationship."

Ties between the two countries have worsened rapidly this year after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China.

Beijing, meanwhile, has placed tariffs on Australian barley imports, banned some other imports and ordered traders to stop buying at least seven commodities including coal, copper and wine - actions which Australian ministers have labelled "economic coercion".

Mr Li's comments were similar to a statement last week from China's Foreign Ministry, which also urged Australia to act first.

"Mutual respect is the basis and prerequisite for state-to-state cooperation," ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said then.

"Once again we urge some in Australia to reflect upon their deeds, do more things that are conducive to mutual trust, cooperation and the China-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership, and create favourable conditions and atmosphere for bilateral practical cooperation across the board," Mr Wang said.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham's office did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment about Mr Li's remarks.

In an interview on Monday with Sky News, Mr Birmingham said the government was still unable to make contact with China at a ministerial level - a stalemate that has been in place since Australia called for independent investigators to be allowed into Wuhan to probe the origins of the pandemic.

"There are problems, and there are deeply troubling and concerning aspects, to some elements of that trade relationship at present," Mr Birmingham told Sky News. "So we are continuing to closely monitor that and trying to work out all diplomatic and government-to-government levels that we can to secure a better understanding and resolution of some of those concerns."

Ties between the key trading partners have grown increasingly strained in recent years, with Canberra barring Huawei Technologies from building its 5G network, and amid accusations of Chinese interference in Australia's internal politics.

Beijing's retaliatory moves come as Australia - whose economy is the most dependent in the world on China - tries to pull out of its first recession in almost three decades.

The Chinese pressure came from many sides, with an editorial on Tuesday in the state-backed China Daily also calling on the Australian government to resolve contentious issues.

"Australia should see clearly the bright prospect of the bilateral cooperation and meet China halfway to push the bilateral relationship back on track at an early date," China Daily said.

Earlier this week, in an interview with an Australian newspaper, a researcher at a Chinese government-connected think tank said Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government needed to act to improve ties.

Researcher Mei Xinyu, who works at a think tank under China's Commerce Ministry, suggested that Australia should offer to send government ministers to China and should express interest in Beijing's new five-year economic plan.