Australia’s trade minister has said that his country does not want a trade war with China.
China effectively ended imports of Australian barley by putting tariffs of more than 80% on the crop, accusing Australia of breaching World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules by subsidising barley production and selling the crop in China at below production costs.
The move came a week after China banned beef imports from Australia’s four largest abattoirs over labelling issues.
“Australia is not interested in a trade war. We don’t pursue our trade policies on a tit-for-tat basis,” Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told reporters.
“We operate according to the trade rules that we strongly support.”
Mr Birmingham said China “has made errors of both fact and law” in applying WTO rules, adding that there was no evidence that Australia was engaged in dumping of products.
The trade dispute has coincided with Australia’s push for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and responses to it. Beijing has denied they are related.
The World Health Organisation bowed to calls on Monday from most of its member states to launch an independent probe into how it managed the international response to the virus, which was first found in China late last year.
The evaluation would stop short of looking into contentious issues such as the origins of the virus.
Chinese president Xi Jinping said China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19 and it should be “based on science and professionalism led by WHO, and conducted in an objective and impartial manner”.
The Chinese Embassy in Australia said on Tuesday that the WHO consensus reached by its decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, in Geneva did not vindicate Australian calls for an investigation.
“The draft resolution on Covid-19 to be adopted by the World Health Assembly (WHA) is totally different from Australia’s proposal of an independent international review,” an embassy statement said.
“To claim the WHA’s resolution a vindication of Australia’s call is nothing but a joke,” the statement added.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on Australia to “completely abandon political manipulation and return to the general consensus of the international community,” which China believes is for an eventual investigation once the pandemic is contained.
China is the number one market for Australian beef, accounting for about 30% of exports.
Australian barley farmer Andrew Weidemann said the tariff barrier “stops the trade completely” with Australia’s biggest customer.
“It’s a really bitter pill to swallow,” Mr Weidemann said. “It’s a real dent in our economy and it will have a big impact.”