GT Voice: Trade woe hype misses core of China-Australia ties
Published: Feb 25, 2021 08:04 PM

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Australia's largest live-fish exporter, Australian Reef Fish Traders, appears to have lost its market access to China after failing to renew its export license, Australia's ABC News reported on Thursday.

Unsurprisingly, the Australian media outlet was quick to jump to the conclusion that the live fish trade is "the latest casualty of simmering tensions" between Beijing and Canberra.

Yet, it remains unclear why the Australian exporter is unable to renew its permit. It is also uncertain whether the company will never be granted the permit or whether there is a delay in procedure, because other traders still have the permits allowing the export of live fish to China. 

And, it's very common to see normal adjustments in trade procedures. 

Back in November 2020, Chinese customs' new testing requirement for heavy metals for seafood imports was also described as a blow to Queensland's multi-million-dollar coral trout fishery amid escalating China-Australia tensions. But in actuality, live fish exports haven't been affected at all, as Australian Reef Fish Traders just sent record monthly consignment of 42 tons of live fish to China in December.

While China-Australia relations have been fluctuating over the past months, China's trade measures on some Australian products such as beef, barley and wine are all justified with legitimate reasons and based on China's relevant laws and regulations. 

The hype about China's "economic sanctions" against Australia reflects the reluctance of some Australian politicians and businesses in abiding by Chinese law, but there is no way for them to pressure China into granting its companies special treatment by playing up geopolitics.

It is undeniable that the overall deterioration of China-Australia relations has indeed brought deafening negative impact on the Australian economy, involving many complicated reasons like market fear, product quality, and anti-pandemic requirements. But amid the downward spiral of bilateral ties, the continuous trade disputes over a growing list of Australian products make it crystal how dependent the Australian economy is on China.

Compared with commodities such as iron ore and coal, concerns over agricultural exports are more likely to touch many Australian nerves, because the consequent impact of such trade setbacks could be easily felt in the retail market and local employment. Time and again, the cascade of bad trade news for Australia is a continuous reminder of why Canberra still fails to make any real change in order to mend its fraught ties with China.

It is true that Australian trade officials have been seeking to speak to their Chinese counterparts, according to media reports. But if they themselves are not intending to change their hostile stance toward China, such phone call request may be little more than a political show.

Chinese Vice-Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen said at a press conference on Wednesday that China hopes Australia would do more to help bilateral cooperation and improve mutual trust in line with the spirit of their comprehensive strategic partnership, and promote the sound and stable growth of bilateral ties.

If Canberra is serious about reversing the downward trend effecting bilateral ties, it needs to respond to Wang's remarks with concrete actions. A muted response will only call into question its sincerity in bringing bilateral trade back on track.