EPAAnthony Albanese arrives at Shanghai airport
NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 19:53
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has arrived in China for a three-day visit. Tomorrow he will visit a major trade fair in Shanghai, which will be opened by China’s Premier Li Qiang. Monday the long-awaited meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping is planned.
It is the first time in seven years that an Australian Prime Minister has been to China. For a long time, the relationship between Beijing and Canberra was so bad that there was almost no contact at all. The row started in 2018, when Chinese telecom company Huawei was excluded from building Australia’s 5G network.
Sky-high import tariffs
That revenge included sky-high import tariffs on a range of Australian products, from beef and barley to lobster and wine. Chinese importers suddenly had to pay an import tariff of more than 200 percent for Australian wine. That meant an end to the hitherto very lucrative trade.
Mark Davidson of Tamburlaine Organic Wines, an organic vineyard in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney, is among the vintners affected. He had invested a lot in his relationships with Chinese customers. “It was a huge growth market. More than 1.3 billion people who all wanted to party,” he says. “Because of those import tariffs, trade came to an abrupt halt.”
Although many Australian industries were affected by the economic sanctions, not all trade came to a standstill. China continued to buy raw materials such as iron ore and natural gas. The consequences for the Australian economy were therefore manageable, says Hervé Lemahieu of the Australian think tank Lowy Institute.
“The sanctions have failed, and politically they have not had the desired effect,” he says. China had hoped to drive a wedge between Australia and the US, but that bond has only grown stronger. “Australia is the canary in the coal mine. An example of how Western countries can deal with a more assertive and aggressive China.”
During the low point of China-Australia relations in 2020, Australian-Chinese journalist Cheng Lei was also arrested. She was accused of leaking state secrets. Two Australian journalists also had to leave the country in haste after threats from the Chinese state.
Cheng, now 48, spent more than three years in a cell where she was watched 24 hours a day by two guards who sat next to and in front of her and with whom she was not allowed to speak, she tells the newspaper. Australian TV program 7.30. She was recently suddenly released, not coincidentally just before Albanese’s visit to China.
Prime Minister Albanese is under pressure to demand the release of Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun during his visit. He has been in custody since 2019 on espionage charges. Australian media also want him to insist that Australian journalists can do their work in China again.
Most import tariffs have now been scrapped. Wine growers still have to be patient, but it is expected that trade can start again next year. China wants something in return. The country wants to join a major free trade agreement in the region, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
“That would cement China’s position as the dominant economic power in the region,” says Lemahieu. This requires Australia’s support.
But the US remains Australia’s most important ally strategically and ideologically. It is therefore unlikely that Albanese will agree to this Chinese request. “Albanese has just returned from Washington, where it was made clear to him that the Americans would feel very uncomfortable here.”
The visit is therefore a balancing act for the Australian Prime Minister, says Lemahieu. “Albanese has tried to temper expectations. He sees it as an opportunity to find a way to coexist peacefully, nothing more.”
The meeting comes not a moment too soon for the Australian wine industry. There is a national surplus of wine, there is enough in storage 859 Olympic swimming pools to fill. This concerns more than two billion liters of wine, or more than 2.8 billion bottles. According to Davidson, Australian winegrowers are in the starting blocks. “We are ready.”
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