31 March 2023


Matthew Doran, Host: Well, staying overseas, and the tensions between Canberra and Beijing have been well-documented over the last few years, and the thaw is on, at least, in terms of ministers being allowed to visit. One of them is the Assistant Trade Minister, Tim Ayres. He joined me a short time ago.

Tim Ayres, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. You're one of the few Australian officials, government ministers, who's been able to get access to China over the last couple of years or so. What's been the reception like since you got there?

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: Well, Prime Minister Albanese met with President Xi in the margins of the G20 late last year, and Penny Wong has had a series of meetings with her counterpart. The government is carefully working through in a calm and consistent way towards the stabilisation of the relationship. It's been a series of positive and constructive engagements here at the Boao Forum. I'm the first minister to be here since 2016, and it's been a good opportunity to have formal discussions with my counterpart from China, but also a series of informal engagements and bilateral meetings with businesses and business leaders from China, but also to support a pretty senior level business delegation that's here from Australia as well.

Matthew Doran: I know that you, your colleagues, even the Prime Minister, do use this rhetoric around stabilising the relationship there, and certainly a big step in that was that meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Albanese at the G20 last year. But there are still many Australian businesses who used to send huge volumes of produce, products to China that have not been able to do so. What is there in terms of tangible outcomes or tangible sort of commitments that you've been receiving that makes you think things are changing?

Assistant Minister: Well, the first point to make is that Australian trade with China at an aggregate level remains very strong. They are our largest trading partner, more than $285 billion worth of trade last year. But there are still impediments in the face of a series of Australian exports, and that bites deep into some regional communities, particularly exports that have not been able to find alternative markets, in particular wine and lobsters. But there are a series of impediments in front of more exports than that - barley, a range of other products, and it's fundamental to stabilising the relationship, that those impediments are removed and that trade returns back to normal.

So, of course, in pretty direct and frank discussions with my Chinese counterpart, Wang Shouwen, the Vice-Minister for Commerce, who's also responsible for trade, of course those issues were raised in a very direct way. They were raised in direct discussions between Minister Farrell and Wang Wentao, his Chinese counterpart, the Minister for Commerce.

We are on a track here where at ministerial level, we are engaging and trying to make sure that there is momentum towards resolving these impediments. But there are also discussions at the official level. Some of these issues are highly technical and require a highly technical approach from Australian officials, and those discussions are underway as well, and we confirmed that those discussions are going ahead over the course of the coming weeks.

Matthew Doran: When would you be expecting there to be a shift there on some of those products actually being able to get into China? We know that the sanctions, the tariffs, they were put in place almost overnight, despite what Chinese officials have said about it being a slower process and investigation into Australian products and the like. They were imposed very quickly. It seems like removing them is taking a far greater time.

Assistant Minister: Well, they weren't imposed overnight, and they won't be resolved overnight. There has been some progress in relation to some categories, so contracts for coal, not just been issued, but shipments of coal arriving in Chinese ports, some progress in relation to cotton and around timber, but it's not enough. We have to have a, you know, all of these impediments removed in order to rebuild confidence in the relationship and to stabilise the relationship, and there is still a lot of progress to go. Now we're prepared to put the time in and the work in. It's important to Australia that these issues are resolved. It was good to see a strong representation from Australian business, including the wine sector here in Hainan. We're going to keep working away at this in a careful and systematic way, Matt. It's in the national interest, it's in the interests of these particular sectors, but I think it's also in the interests of the Australia-China relationship more broadly that these impediments are removed, and we'll keep doing what we can on the Australian side. Ultimately, this is a matter for China to resolve these questions.

Matthew Doran: One last question before we lose you. There is another milestone today, aside from the trade front, but another milestone today with the ongoing detention of Australian journalist Cheng Lei. It's now been a very significant period of time since she was first detained and that those proceedings were started against her. How do you navigate that sort of discussion as well? Because clearly Australia is making representations to the Chinese Government on her case and on the case of others, but it doesn't again seem like China's listening.

Assistant Minister: Well, firstly, I'm aware that it's a year, I think, today, since Cheng Lei's judicial proceedings here in China. So, I'm very aware that that's the case and that these are very difficult circumstances for her and her family back in Australia who want to see her as soon as they can. For my part, you know, these issues - it's important that we raise them consistently in ministerial engagements at the Commonwealth level with the Chinese Government. I raised those matters. The consular cases are an important part of stabilising the relationship. I raised those matters with my counterpart. I expect that colleagues will continue to do that and, you know, we can have real confidence that all of the capability in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and at ministerial level, these are very important matters to be resolved, and I expect that they'll continue to be raised until they are resolved.

Matthew Doran: Well, Tim Ayres, it's been a busy week for you over there in China. Thanks for joining us this afternoon.