China-Australia Relations: Opportunities, Challenges, and Latest Updates
China-Australia relations appear to be going back on track following a prolonged period of strained ties. In 2023, a series of notable diplomatic engagements took place between the two countries, creating momentum to facilitate a rebound in bilateral trade and commercial prospects.
UPDATE (September 8, 2023)
After a three-year break, Australia and China are set to restart high-level government talks, marking a positive turn in their bilateral relationship.
The 7th edition of the Australia-China High-Level Dialogue (hereinafter, “Dialogue”), taking place in Beijing on September 7, 2023, facilitated discussions on trade, investment, regional security, and international cooperation among senior representatives from various sectors. The Dialogue was co-chaired by China’s former Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Australia’s former Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also participated, underscoring its bipartisan nature.
The resumption of the high-level dialogue is indicative of broader efforts to enhance bilateral engagement and stabilize relations between the two countries. It follows a meeting between Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing last December.
Leading the Australian delegation, former Trade Minister Craig Emerson emphasized the historical significance of the dialogue in promoting mutual understanding and cooperation with their Chinese counterparts. This engagement marks another positive turning point, as China has already begun to ease restrictions on Australian goods and extended an invitation for Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to visit, further enhancing the optimistic outlook for bilateral relations.
Also reported September 7 has been confirmation from the office of the Australian Prime Minister that he will fly to Beijing, possibly in the next two months, to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s historic visit to China. Albanese made the announcement after holding “respectful” and “constructive” talks with Chinese Premier Li Qiang on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Jakarta.
UPDATE (August 4, 2023)
China has lifted the 80 percent tariff it had imposed on barley from Australia, in a significant step to resolve the trade dispute.
The tariffs were imposed in May 2020 after China accused Australia of selling the grain below the cost of production and providing subsidies to Australian farmers. This resulted in a complete halt in Australia’s barley exports to China, causing damage to both sides.
Effective from August 5, 2023, China will officially remove the tariffs, which consisted of a 73.6 percent anti-dumping tariff and a 6.9 percent anti-subsidy tariff. The decision was based on China’s assessment of the changes in the local barley market.
As a result of China’s tariff roll-back, Australia has also chosen to discontinue its appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the matter. This development signals a potential step towards normalizing trade relations between the two countries in the barley sector and is expected to have a broader impact on their bilateral commercial relations.
Read more: China Removes Barley Tariffs on Australia
UPDATE (May 19, 2023)
According to China’s ambassador to Canberra, Chinese imports of Australian timber have been scheduled to resume from May 18, 2023. Ambassador Xiao Qian announced that the Chinese customs authority has officially informed the Australian Minister of Agriculture about the change.Additionally, discussions are underway regarding a potential visit by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Beijing. The timber trade between the two countries, which previously amounted to approximately A$600 million (US$399 million) annually, had been largely halted since late 2020. Thus, this comes as a positive development, in a series of events signaling a warming of relations between the two countries.
UPDATE (April 17, 2023)
On April 14, China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) issued the Notice on Launching a Review of Anti-dumping and Countervailing Measures against Imports of Barley from Australia to clarify relevant matters. The MOFCOM has decided to review the anti-dumping and countervailing measures applied to imports of barley from Australia starting from April 15, 2023. The review is on the need for the continuation of anti-dumping and countervailing duties on imports of barley from Australia. Any interested party may submit comments in writing and provide corresponding evidence within 20 days from the Announcement date.
UPDATE (March 22, 2023)
All domestic companies in China are allowed to import coal from Australia, indicating the end of trade limitations that have been in place since late 2020, Bloomberg reports. Sources familiar with the matter say that ports and customs offices have been instructed to allow overseas cargo into the country, including Australian coal.
Earlier this year, the restriction had already been partially eased when four major state-backed importers were granted permission to buy Australian coal, which began to be shipped in January. At that time, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) reportedly discussed with several government-backed utilities and a steelmaker to explore the possibility of resuming coal imports from Australia.
UPDATE (December 20, 2022)
At the invitation of Wang Yi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, State Councilor, and Foreign Minister, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong will pay a visit to China from December 20 to 21, Chinese and Australian officials announced on the same day. December 21 this year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Australia. During Penny Wong’s visit to China, Wang Yi will hold talks with her and the two sides shall hold a new round of the China-Australia Diplomatic and Strategic Dialogue. It will be the first visit to China by an Australian foreign minister in four years. Analysts expect it to be a “landmark step in the reset of China-Australia relations”.
2022 marks the 50th anniversary of China-Australia bilateral relations. Through the past half-century, the two countries have grown to become close trading partners. China’s rapid growth has created both strong demand and market prospects for Australian businesses.
However, in recent years, bilateral ties have seen some tension. To improve relations, the two countries’ leaders met at the sidelines of the G20 summit, sending some positive signals.
This article takes a look at how the China-Australia bilateral relationship has developed until this critical juncture and discusses future possibilities and challenges.
Bilateral trade and investment
China is Australia’s largest trading partner – both import and export. Meanwhile, Australia is China’s fifth biggest source of imports and 10th biggest export market. In the past two years, economic and trade cooperation between the two countries has witnessed continuous growth, despite geopolitical tensions. In 2021, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to approximately US$231.2 billion, a rise of 35.1 percent year-on-year, with China’s imports from Australia reaching US$164.82 billion, up 40.6 percent from 2020. In the first nine months of 2022, Australia’s exports to China reached A$172 billion (US$118 billion), a rise of 2.7 percent year-on-year, while its imports from China reached A$101 billion (US$69.5 billion ), a 16.5 percent increase.
Australia imports 25 percent of its manufactured merchandise from China. The products transitioned from initial imports of textiles and clothing to household appliances in the 1990s to expand to engineering products and telecommunications equipment in the present. Chinese businesses are also keen to invest in Australia, particularly in infrastructure projects.
Australian commodities, especially food and agricultural products (beef, wine, barley, and sea food, to name a few), natural resources (coal and gas), and wool, have strong competitive advantages in China. Australia’s rich reserves in critical minerals, particularly lithium and iron ore, make it a strategic and significant trading partner for China. Chinese companies also have important stakes in key Australian mines.
Trade agreements and regional cooperation
China–Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA)
The two countries have established trade relations through a number of mechanisms. In 2015, the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) entered into force, paving the way for a close economic relationship for 10 years. The ChAFTA continues to elevate the competitiveness of Australian goods and services, by providing Australians with better access to China and securing the market.
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)
An initiative to boost trade and investment in the Indo-Pacific region, the RCEP consists of China, Japan, South Korea, Australia/New Zealand, and Southeast Asia (ASEAN bloc countries) and came into force in January 2022. While still in its infancy, the RCEP holds significance for China and for foreign investors. It provides yet another platform for China to interact with major markets like Australia on trade.
Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)
The CPTPP is another free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region. Its member countries represent 13 percent of global GDP. Australia ratified the agreement in 2018. While China is not an official member yet, it submitted its CPTPP application in September 2021. Possibilities remain that China will be accepted with certain reforms in its business sectors.
Political tensions and its impact on trade
Despite the scope of market opportunities, bilateral relations between China and Australia have not always been smooth. Tensions have cropped up on a range of issues related to technology, politics, and trade.
In 2018, Australia became the first country in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance to ban Huawei and ZTE telecommunications equipment, citing national security concerns. Following this, Australia has pursued various US-led initiatives aimed at countering China’s growing footprint in the Indo-Pacific region, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, Partners in the Blue Pacific, and the AUKUS alliance.
More recently, in early 2020, bilateral relations experienced a sharp downturn amid tensions regarding the origins of Covid-19. After China imposed import sanctions on a wide range of Australian goods – including coal, barley, wine, beef and seafood – Australia followed up by taking the trade disputes with China to the World Trade Organization and cancelled a Belt and Road Initiative deal between China and the state of Victoria.
Such incidents have had a severe impact on trade. The Australian government estimated that the tariffs could cost its economy about A$20 billion a year, with wine, barley, lobsters, beef, and coal among the most-hit products. Similarly, Chinese businesses faced tightened scrutiny, especially on deals involving critical infrastructure.
2022 development: Xi-Albanese meeting at the G20 summit
On November 15, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met during the G20 summit in Indonesia, after a long diplomatic freeze. This was the first formal meeting between the two leaders since 2016. They exchanged opinions on trade, acknowledging the economies were “highly complementary.”
Though the meeting was widely seen as a thaw in bilateral ties, no real breakthroughs were made, with the restrictions on A$20 billion (US$13.4 billion) worth of Australian exports still in place and no improvement in the conditions to create a better investment environment for Chinese businesses in Australia. The recent visit of Australian lawmakers to Taiwan in December cast an additional yet gloomy layer to the bilateral relationship.
Earlier this year, Albanese cautioned that Australia’s “relationship with China will remain difficult.” Given the country’s Labor government’s policy to rebuild Australia’s manufacturing industry, Canberra may even impose heavier tariffs on Chinese imports. With growing geopolitical tension between China and the West, Australia may also veer in the direction of US and Canada on critical minerals security, further limiting trade potential with China.
However, despite these tensions and trade restrictions on selected products, China still counts for more than 35 percent of Australian exports and 20 percent of imports. Moreover, iron ore, wool, and gas were not hit by the sanctions, and many of Australia’s largest companies continued to benefit from Chinese exports. The sheer size of trade with China was three times higher than that with the US. Australia and China also have shared interests in a range of trade-related matters, such as e-commerce, sustainability, and climate change. For example, Western Australia is working to step up its space research cooperation with China.
Investment prospects in China in 2023
With the size and diversity of its economy, China still stands as a major investment destination for Australia. With the gradual opening-up and relaxation of COVID restrictions in China, the Chinese public interest in tourism and overseas education will spring back.
In addition to existing markets in agricultural goods, natural resources, and wool, there also exist more opportunities with changes in the Chinese economy. For one, the Chinese market for more advanced goods and services of high quality will likely expand.
Rising wages and growing consumer needs for quality products will increase demand for more sophisticated manufactured goods and services. Australia’s expertise in medical devices, human resources, urban development, and financing offer immense potential for exports and investments.
China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at email@example.com.
Dezan Shira & Associates has offices in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Germany, Italy, India, and Russia, in addition to our trade research facilities along the Belt & Road Initiative. We also have partner firms assisting foreign investors in The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh.
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