China's top trade official fails to meet Australia minister at WTO conference

Asutralia Trade Minister Don Farrell had reached out to Chinese counterpart Wang Wentao to meet at the WTO conference. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) - China's Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao was not  available to meet Australia's new Trade Minister Don Farrell during a visit to Geneva, potentially delaying a reset in relations between the two countries.

Canberra and Beijing ended a diplomatic deep freeze lasting more than two years on Sunday (June 12), when Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe met in Singapore during an international summit.

But Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said there could be no formal warming of ties until China ends punitive measures targeting Australian exports, including barley, coal and wine.

A spokesman for Trade Minister Farrell confirmed the Australian government had reached out to Mr Wang for a meeting on the sidelines of the World Trade Organisation's 12th Ministerial Conference in Switzerland over the past week, but the Chinese minister had been unavailable.

Mr Farrell had travelled to Geneva to meet with his international counterparts after being sworn into office on June 1.

Relations between Australia and China deteriorated in April 2020 when then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Shortly after Mr Morrison's announcement, Australian exports to China began to encounter difficulties entering Chinese ports, such as lengthy customs delays and high tariffs.

Deputy Prime Minister Marles described his talks with Mr Wei on Sunday as "frank" but also a "critical first step" in rebuilding relations.

However Mr Albanese downplayed the possibility of a diplomatic reset between the two countries on Tuesday, saying the relationship would remain cool until tariffs imposed by the Chinese government on Australian imports were lifted.

"It is China that have imposed sanctions, it is China that has changed, and it's China that needs to remove those sanctions," he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday that Australia needed to show "mutual respect" in its dealings with Beijing, claiming it was "quite clear" how the original diplomatic rift started.

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