China-Australia relations: trade minister torch passes to Dan Tehan as bilateral feud enters ninth month

Su-Lin Tan
·6-min read

Former Australian trade minister Simon Birmingham has called on Beijing to give his replacement, Dan Tehan, the courtesy of a phone call – a gesture toward resolving the two country’s political differences – as it was announced that Australia’s merchandise trade surplus fell to a two-year low in November, hit by a slump in exports to China.

Australia’s goods trade surplus dropped to A$1.9 billion (US$1.43 billion) last month from A$4.7 billion in October, led by a 10 per cent decrease in its exports to China, coupled with an 11 per cent rise in imports from China, according to preliminary data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Wednesday.

Birmingham was on the front line of the conflict between the two countries that heated up in April when Canberra called for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus without consulting Beijing. He concluded his role as trade minister on Tuesday by encouraging Australian exporters to diversify to other markets amid the protracted dispute with China. On Wednesday, he formally assumed the role of finance minister as part of a cabinet reshuffle.

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“China should, of course, come to the table and show the courtesy to a new trade minister in being willing to have dialogue,” he said in an interview with Sky News. “But the honest truth is that the challenges, in terms of government-to-government engagement and ministerial-level engagement between China and Australia, go back many years and predate even my appointment as trade minister.

“Now, I think this has been an error on China’s part – that the, in a sense, first thing they cut was a willingness to actually sit down and talk, whereas that should be the last thing that you take off the table, because the way you work through problems and differences and issues is to engage in dialogue.”

He also said that while Australia would not compromise its sovereignty, he did not consider the problems between the two countries irreparable.

“We continue to make clear that we value the partnership and relationship that we’ve had with China, and that we are willing to come to the table and work through issues,” he said during a local radio interview with 5AA.

Former Australian diplomats rated Tehan highly for the role, but they said the collective political optics from the Australian government, rather than a change in ministers, would count more towards cooling relations.

But they also said it was also time for China to step up to the plate to end the conflict that has taken a hefty toll on the trade of Australian cotton, coal, barley, wine, lobsters and other goods.

“It’s not about individuals, it is much more fundamental … although Dan Tehan is a very good appointment and has a lot of experience in the portfolio,” said Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China. “China’s behaviour is seen as petulant in much of the world and does no good for China’s global standing. Tehan’s appointment should be used as a circuit breaker to at least re-engage at the level of trade ministers to discuss not only points of difference, but also the many issues where China’s and Australia’s interests align.”

Tehan, who hails from rural Australia and understands its regional and agricultural businesses, said in a statement this week that he would “engage, listen and work tirelessly to advance Australia’s trade interests”.

Privately schooled at Melbourne’s elite Xavier College, and at the University of Melbourne, Tehan, as a former education minister, also has experience in another China-dependent export – Australia’s A$40 billion (US$30.18 billion) international education sector.

“Our prosperity has been built on trade, and our future relies on it,” he said. “Trade is a mutually beneficial relationship between nations that enhances friendships, understanding, respect and cooperation.”

China should have stood above Australian provocations and showed its displeasure by declining leadership meetings, not taking tit-for-tat measures unworthy of a rising power reclaiming its role

Bob Carr, former Australian foreign minister

But former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr was less optimistic that Tehan’s appointment would thaw the freeze in relations, saying Canberra’s hardened stance against Beijing – in a bid to be closer with Washington –would continue to get in the way.

He said that talk of “the China threat” last week during a call between Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was evidence of this.

“The Morrison government has taken an ideological anti-China path, following that of predecessor Malcolm Turnbull. The childishness of the tweet from an official of the China foreign ministry, and the [Chinese embassy in Canberra’s] 14-complaints document have not helped, nor have the trade measures,” Carr said. “China should have stood above Australian provocations and showed its displeasure by declining leadership meetings, not taking tit-for-tat measures unworthy of a rising power reclaiming its role.”

Daryl Guppy, who is on the national board of the Australia China Business Council, but spoke in his capacity as a trade consultant, said there was a “false conflation in the narrative to equate commercial ties with Australian democratic values” in Canberra.

“Australia does not seem to object to commercial ties with the murderous regime in the Philippines, with the racial and religious persecution promoted in India by [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi or the suppression of democracy by the monarch and the military in Thailand,” he said.

Like many in the business sector, however, Guppy said he hoped Tehan’s presence would serve as a circuit breaker.

“Tehan is a new face to deal with, and if handled with diplomacy, this can allow both Australia and China the ‘face’ needed to reset the relationship. The danger is that Prime Minister [Scott] Morrison will be unable to resist the temptation to play international strongman for a domestic Australian audience,” he said.

In response to Birmingham’s call for a phone call, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday that diplomatic channels between the two countries had always been open, but added that mutual respect was imperative to paving the way for a government-to-government conversation.

“Mutual respect is the basis and prerequisite for dialogue and pragmatic cooperation between countries,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. “If Australia is really sincere in engaging in dialogue with China, it should show its sincerity through actions.”

Additional reporting by Jun Mai

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