Australian Trade Minister Don Farrell is aiming secure "unimpeded" commerce with China, Australia's largest trade partner

Sydney (AFP) - Australia’s trade minister flew to Beijing on Thursday on a mission to demolish Chinese import barriers after years of punishing sanctions and unofficial bans.

Trade Minister Don Farrell said he aimed to secure unrestricted commerce with China, Australia’s largest trade partner with a healthy appetite for iron ore and coal resources.

“During my visit, I will be advocating strongly for the full resumption of unimpeded Australian exports to China – for all sectors,” he said in a statement on the eve of Friday’s meeting.

Farrell, who is to meet with China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, said fully reopening trade would benefit both countries.

The meeting represents a “significant breakthrough” in rebuilding the relationship, said Australia China Business Council president David Olsson, who is with the delegation.

It will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two trade ministers since 2019, he said.

“We recognise that this won’t happen overnight, but the removal of the trade obstacles affecting Australian exporters would be seen as an important step in rebuilding confidence and trust,” Olsson said.

- Bitter dispute -

China slapped hefty tariffs on key Australian exports such as barley, beef and wine in 2020, leveraging its economic muscle at the height of a bitter dispute with the former conservative government.

It also stopped imports of some of Australia’s most significant export commodities, including coal, curbing billions of dollars in trade.

China had been angered by Australia’s legislation against overseas influence operations, its barring Huawei from 5G contracts and its call for an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Australia retaliated by complaining to the World Trade Organization.

Their icy relations appear to have thawed since Australia’s centre-left government adopted a less confrontational approach to China following its election a year ago.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for relations with Australia to “improve” in a November 2022 meeting with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

It was the first formal summit between the two countries in more than five years.

- Restoring trade -

China took delivery of its first Australian coal shipment in February, after an unofficial ban of two years.

Trade in other goods also appears set to open up.

“The Australian government is pleased there have been several positive trade developments, including the resumption of coal, cotton, and copper trade and China’s agreement to undertake an expedited review of duties on Australian barley,” Farrell said.

Even with the remaining restrictions, two-way trade between the countries was worth Aus$287 billion (US$195 billion) last year.

Beijing said Thursday it was “willing to work with Australia”.

“During this process, the two sides can resolve their respective concerns on economic and trade issues in a balanced way through constructive consultations, so as to jointly benefit the two peoples,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular press briefing.

- Nuclear-powered submarines -

Australia faces a difficult balancing act – China is its largest trading partner but also a rival in the battle for diplomatic and military influence in the South Pacific region.

Canberra angered Beijing in March by announcing it would acquire nuclear-powered submarines in a pact with the United States and Britain as part of an ambitious plan to bulk up Western muscle in the Asia-Pacific.

Farrell said he would also raise “other issues of importance to Australians”, without giving details.

Australia called last week for one of its nationals – jailed journalist Cheng Lei – to be reunited with her family after 1,000 days in detention in China.

Cheng, a former anchor at Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, disappeared on August 13, 2020, and was later charged with “supplying state secrets overseas”.