SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Wine win shows Australia won’t be pushed around by China

Simon Birmingham
The Nightly
4 Min Read
It is a credit to the Australian industry that we withstood, with minimal economic impact, the trade sanctions.
It is a credit to the Australian industry that we withstood, with minimal economic impact, the trade sanctions. Credit: Alex Plavevski/EPA

Australia should wear our national resilience against China’s economic coercion as a badge of honour. Under pressure our economy remained strong, our exporters pursued diversification and our businesses put Australia’s national interest first.

Welcome as the removal of Chinese trade sanctions against Australia is, we shouldn’t express gratitude for the cessation of a punishment that should never have been imposed in the first place.

Instead, we should acknowledge the unfair hardship inflicted on some businesses as a result of actions by China’s government, but also the amazing resilience demonstrated by our nation.

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It is to the enduring credit of Australian industry and business that we withstood, with minimal economic impact, the barrage of trade sanctions that Xi Jinping’s government applied against us.

These sanctions fell into two categories: direct and indirect.

Xi’s direct attacks against Australia were delivered via upfront tariffs, or extra taxes, applied to Australian barley and wine.

Indirect attacks included the mysterious discovery by Chinese customs of biosecurity or safety concerns with Australian timber, beef or lobsters.

In other cases shipments were just denied access to ports, or time-sensitive goods held up in ports until spoiled.

None of these punishments were justified under trade laws or as a result of unrelated disagreements. In fact, China’s actions were in direct breach of their international trade obligations and undertakings.

Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham. Credit: Jono Searle/AAPImage

Only authorities in Beijing know whether they were provoked by Australia passing laws to protect our institutions from foreign interference and safeguard critical infrastructure; or our calling out of cyber attacks and aggressive military conduct in the South China Sea; or us having the temerity to suggest a transparent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.

While lessons can always be learned in how things were done, all of Australia’s actions were justified, while China’s retaliations were not.

Who can forget the infamous list of 14 grievances and demands released by the Chinese embassy in Canberra?

It is crucial that our nation has not and does not yield to such pressure, because to do so would only invite further demands and risk further coercion if they were not complied with.

While we should maintain stable relations with China and pursue beneficial opportunities, Australian governments must still be willing to take difficult decisions where our national interest demands it.

As it is, Australia has not secured the removal of these sanctions without some concession to Beijing. But the concession is one of allowing China to save face rather than having their abuse of trade measures exposed to the world.

This concession has been made possible by swift decisions, back when China first applied these tariffs, to challenge them in the World Trade Organisation.

It is no coincidence that China has only now agreed to drop the tariffs after it was provided with the intended WTO findings.

In return for Beijing dropping the unjustified tariffs, Canberra has agreed to drop the WTO challenge.

The judgment of the independent umpire undoubtedly finds China guilty of wrongdoing, but it will never see the light of day.

Australia is allowing China to dodge the embarrassment of a formal ruling against their coercive acts, in return for a faster removal of tariffs than WTO processes would have enabled.

Australia is an honourable partner who sticks to the commitments we make in international agreements. We do as we promise and, overwhelmingly, we have benefited by being a world leader in trade liberalisation.

In contrast, China has inflicted numerous points of damage on itself via its coercive acts against Australia, and other nations such as Lithuania.

The Chinese government has diminished its reputation as a country worth striking deals with, elevated its risk as a country to invest in and inflicted damage to its own businesses which relied upon Australian inputs.

As a South Australian who worked in the wine industry pre-politics, I wish the pain felt by some businesses had been avoided.

However, Australian industry can be proud of not calling for changes to Australian policies, their pursuit of other trade markets and the continued growth achieved in spite of China’s attempts to crush us.

Productivity Commission analysis showed that China’s sanctions “did not impose significant economy-wide costs on Australia”.

We found other markets, struck new trade deals and showed that the little guy isn’t a pushover. For that we should be proud.

Senator Simon Birmingham is the shadow minister for foreign affairs.

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