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Labor to send troubleshooters to help mend Chinese ties

www.theaustralian.com.au by PRIMROSE RIORDAN24/05/2018  

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Richard Marles and Senator Penny Wong

Labor will seek to lay the foundations for a reset of relations with China under a future Shorten government by planning a trip by Penny Wong and Richard Marles to Beijing as soon as September.

Labor’s move came as Trade Minister Steven Ciobo offered a strident defence of the government’s handling of the frictions with China and said he had been reassured by Chinese officials of pro-gress on labelling issues that were slowing the flow of Australian wine into China.

After The Australian reported this month there had been little movement on key points from Mr Turnbull’s March meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Mr Ciobo acknowledged there were -issues with a $500 million deal to open up access for premium Australian chilled beef to China.

“Progress on increasing the number of approved Australian processing plants has been slower than expected, though discussions are continuing,” he said.

The Australian understands trade officials recently convened a meeting with beef exporters to -investigate their concerns about trade with China but government sources argued no individual Australian-owned company raised any specific major issues.

The Beijing visit by Senator Wong and Mr Marles is seen by Labor as part of a wider attempt to craft a case that the opposition would have a more “sophisticated” approach to the bilateral relationship, such as taking a more selective approach to calling out Chinese government behaviour contrary to Australian interests, and working more behind the scenes.

It will also be a chance for Richard Marles — viewed as a China hawk with strong views on the South China Sea — to reassure the country he would deal with it in good faith. His last visit was in 2013.

If elected, Labor could take a tough stand on any involvement of Chinese technology giants in critical infrastructure and views with concern any possible participation of ZTE or Huawei in the future 5G high-speed network. The two companies are short-listed to build Australia’s mobile network.

In recent weeks some sectors of the Australian business community with exposure to China began loudly protesting the government’s approach to China, with Yancoal director and former China ambassador Geoff Raby suggesting Foreign Minister Julie Bishop should stand down to mend ties.

Last week Australian wine -exporters such as Treasury Wine chief executive Michael Clarke, Casella Wines boss John Casella and Darren De Bortoli, the head of De Bortoli Wines, revealed there had been shipping slowdowns into China and issues with new red tape.

The exporters have stopped short of blaming the political situation, but Labor has linked the two.

“Well there are a number of companies that are affected. I guess the problem here is over the course of the last 12 months the government has said some pretty silly and pretty stupid things and that’s got the Chinese government angry and we’re seeing the consequences of that now,” Labor trade spokesman Jason Clare said yesterday.

Mr Ciobo, who has just returned from Shanghai, raised the issue of country-of-origin labelling and Treasury Wines’ customs delays with Chinese officials.

Ms Bishop will meet Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in -Buenos Aires late today on the sidelines of a G20 ministerial meeting.

Government sources say tensions are being overblown and just a few companies have approached the government with substantive shipping issues concerning China.