(Bloomberg) — Australia’s former treasurer Joe Hockey, who helped oversee a comprehensive free-trade agreement with China, has accused Beijing of bullying and immature behavior as the list of Australian goods targeted for reprisals grows.
“The problem is China just doesn’t want to talk,” Hockey, who until January served as Australia’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a Bloomberg Television interview from Washington on Tuesday. “Instead they just want to react aggressively and try to bully us. And bullying never works with Australia.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government raised Beijing’s ire in April by calling for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus. Since then, products from barley to wine to lobsters have been targeted with tariffs, anti-dumping probes or delays at port.
Beijing is now preparing to ban copper and sugar from Australia, the South China Morning Post reported Monday, citing multiple trade sources in China that it didn’t identify. Sandfire Resources Ltd. fell as much as 9% on the news in early Sydney trading Tuesday, while Treasury Wine Estates (OTC:TSRYF) Ltd. dropped as much as 3% as the wine industry braces for restrictions.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, who has repeatedly tried in vain to contact his Chinese counterpart to diffuse tensions, on Monday called on Beijing to rule out “discriminatory actions.”
China is Australia’s most important trading partner, with agricultural shipments alone totaling about A$16 billion ($11.3 billion) in 2018-19. With Australia in the midst of its first recession in almost 30 years, Morrison’s government is aware the economic hit of more widespread trade measures from Beijing couldn’t come at a worse time.
“It’s been very tough for Australia,” Hockey said. “We have reached out continuously over a number of years to Chinese ministers and senior leadership and they’ve shunned us for various reasons. They’ve chosen to try and bully us at different times. That’s not the China that I knew when I was treasurer.”
Hockey served as treasurer for two years until September 2015 — that year, the nations concluded a comprehensive free-trade agreement following a state visit from President Xi Jinping in 2014.
Since that time, “sadly they’ve become far more aggressive,” Hockey said. “Their diplomats have become far more aggressive and as a result people are pushing back. Australia is one of many countries that are pushing back.”
He called the latest steps by China an “immature action” and “not the behavior of a great power.”
As the most China-dependent developed economy, Australia has been increasingly concerned at what it has called “economic coercion” by Beijing.
Barley has been hit with tariffs and wine subjected to anti-subsidy and anti-dumping probes, while Beijing has discouraged tourists and students from visiting Australia.
Tony Battaglene, chief executive of Australian Grape & Wine, said Tuesday the industry was bracing for “severe border restrictions” in China from Friday. He cited feedback from importers in the nation, though said there had been no official notification.
Australian grain exporter Emerald Grain was told at the weekend that the customs agency had barred further barley shipments after finding a grass-like weed. The company, which is owned by Japan’s Sumitomo Corp., rejects the allegation. “There’s no validity to the claims from a grain quality perspective,” CEO David Johnson said, calling on the government to find a political solution.
Morrison’s government last month said it was seeking clarification of reports that China has suspended purchases of Australian coal.
Last month, some Chinese cotton mills were verbally told by Beijing government officials to stop buying the fiber from Australia, according to two people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing a private matter.
Some Australian lobster shipments have experienced customs clearance delays in the past few days. The South China Morning Post also said all timber exports from Queensland state had been banned after customs officials found bark beetle in a shipment.
Asked about the reports on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was “committed to developing friendly cooperative relations with other countries on the basis of mutual respect.”
“We believe healthy and stable China-Australia relations serve the two peoples’ fundamental interests,” he said.
(Updates with wine industry comment, Emerald Grain)
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