Australia’s trade minister has extended an olive branch to China, suggesting a “compromise situation” or “alternative way” to settle trade disputes might emerge in talks between the two countries.
Don Farrell made the comments in an interview with Guardian Australia hailing “positive signs” in Australia’s relationship with China, including the foreign minister, Penny Wong, planning to meet her counterpart, and China’s consent to a trade dispute appeal process.
Since the Albanese government was elected in May, Australia and China have reopened lines of communication including the deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, meeting China’s defence minister in Singapore in June.
Farrell has asked to meet his counterpart, Wang Wentao, but was unable to do so when both attended the World Trade Organization meeting in June. Farrell said the offer to “sit down any time” remained open.
Australia is currently pursuing trade disputes in the WTO over anti-dumping tariffs on products including wine, barley, meat and crayfish. Wong has vowed to take every opportunity to demand the Chinese government scrap “unjustified trade strikes”.
But Farrell struck a more conciliatory note.
“So, at the moment the plan is to proceed with those [disputes],” he said.
“Obviously if the opportunity arises to have a different set of discussions, whereby we can nut out a compromise situation – then I’d be fully supportive of going down that track.
“At the moment it’s the WTO process, that’s the proper way that these issues should be determined.
“But, if an alternative way emerges, then we’ll certainly be happy to look at that.
“I’ve issued the invitation, I’ve held out the olive branch. There’s not much more I can do until we find out if that’s going to be reciprocated on the Chinese side.”
Farrell said the WTO appeals process had “completely broken down” due to Donald Trump’s failure to appoint appeal judges when he was US president.
But Farrell noted China was “one of the parties that has agreed to allow other appeals processes”, meaning if Australia’s claims are unsuccessful at first instance it could enter a form of arbitration. “I take that as a good sign – that they want the WTO process to work.”
Farrell said Australian producers were “not getting what they used to for their product, and that’s having an impact on their prosperity and living standards”.
He cited examples including neighbours of his Clare Valley vineyard who allowed their shiraz grapes to rot on the vine, and the price of crayfish in Robe falling from $109 a kilogram to $75.
Farrell said Australia had “differences of philosophy” with China and the Aukus deal was another point of tension, but both countries had an “interest in trying to get the trade relationship back to where it was”.
“It would be good if in my time as the minister we can get back to some sort of sensible arrangement with the Chinese [government].”
Farrell confirmed that Wong was in talks to meet China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Asked if the pair could meet soon, such as at the upcoming G20 meeting in Indonesia, Farrell said: “I don’t exactly know, but it looks like the answer to that is yes. I think there are positive signs.”
Farrell said Australia’s talks with the European Union could produce a free trade agreement “sooner than most people expect” despite sticking points on access to agricultural markets and name of origin rules.
The trade minister said talks had progressed due to two “obstacles out of the way”: with an “almost audible sigh of relief” that Australia now has a more ambitious climate policy; and efforts to reconnect with France after the cancellation of Australia’s submarine contract by the Morrison government.
“You saw the prime minister meet the president Emmanuel Macron and the Spanish president, and both of those were clearly supportive.”