‘Positive momentum’ from Beijing but no trade concessions after Farrell’s trip

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Trade Minister Don Farrell is returning to Australia from a two-day trip to China without securing any major concessions on a raft of trade bans on Australian exports.

Farrell said there was “positive momentum” following his visit to the country, where he held high-level talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Wentao on Friday night, agreeing to “step up dialogue” to resolve the trade impasse.

Trade Minister Don Farrell says the trip was a first step in resolving the trade issues.Credit: DFAT

He said Wang had agreed to visit him in South Australia to build on their discussions.

Farrell said he also raised the plight of Australians Cheng Lei and Yang Henjung, who have been detained by China for years over alleged espionage offences amid frozen bilateral relations.

In a late night press conference, he said Minister Wang reassured him that a recent agreement “remains on track” to end Chinese sanctions that killed off Australia’s $1.2bn-a-year worth of barley exports to the country.

“I also reiterated that we expect a similar process to be followed with the WTO dispute in respect to Australian wine,” Farrell said.

He said the discussions were positive and followed “a whole lot of movement” already, with Australian coal and copper already coming back into the Chinese market, and a pathway to resolving the barley dispute.

Wang raised China’s hoped-for entry into the trans-Pacific free-trade deal, but Farrell said it is too soon to consider the country’s application as the UK’s accession to the agreement was still pending.

Farrell said Wang had raised China’s concerns over its firms’ ability to invest in Australia.

The move follows Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ recent rejection of a Chinese company’s push to lift its stake in a key lithium development.

But Farrell said Chinese investment applications were overwhelmingly accepted, and “like all countries, we reserve the right to make strategic decisions about foreign investment, particularly where they involve state-owned companies”.

He said he had also agreed to send agricultural officials to China to help sort out biosecurity concerns over Chinese electric cars that had been blocked from entry into Australia.

Farrell was also asked about a reported upcoming visit to Australia by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, which he appeared to confirm at the opening of his meeting with Wang.

The South Australian senator said he was responding to a media report, but “if he comes to Australia, he would be most welcome to come to Adelaide”.

Tourism Minister Don Farrell, right, arrives for a meeting with Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao in Beijing on Friday.Credit: AP

His comments followed a story in the South China Morning Post revealing Qin’s expected trip, which is yet to be formally announced by Beijing.

Farrell pushed back at suggestions he was returning home from China empty-handed, describing the trip as a “first step”.

“More work needs to be done. And I always thought that we would have to continue to persist and to persevere,” he said.

Wang said earlier that China had “noted” Australia’s concerns over trade issues, and that improving the bilateral partnership would require a “joint effort”.

He said China was also concerned that its businesses and products “be treated fairly and justly” by Australia.

China slapped punishing tariffs on Australian exports including barley, beef, wine, lobster, coal and timber, after the Morrison government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.

China recently agreed to review the barley bans in response to the suspension of a World Trade Organisation challenge by Australia, setting a course for the sanctions on the commodity to be lifted, together with those on wine.

Farrell stressed the ongoing tensions had not emerged overnight and would take sustained work to be resolved to the satisfaction of both countries.

The two ministers have agreed to continue discussions, part of the Australian push for a “pathway” to stabilise trade relations and end World Trade Organisation disputes.

They also discussed China’s frustration at delays for some eclectic vehicles being imported into Australia. As a result of the meeting, Australian officials will be dispatched to try and resolve biosecurity issues related to the cars.

“They we’re very positive discussions,” Farrell

“A whole lot of movement has started already. We’ve seen coal come back into China. We’ve seen copper concentrates come back into China. We’ve seen cotton come back into China.

“We’ve got a pathway for resolving the World Trade Organisation barley dispute and we’ve indicated to the Chinese that we see that as a process for delivering on the issue of wine”

Farrell is departing Beijing on Saturday morning.

With Ben Packham and Tom McIlroy

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