China suspends economic dialogue with Australia
BEIJING (AP) – China on Thursday suspended economic dialogue with Australia and stepped up a print campaign that began because of Australian support for a coronavirus investigation and disrupted exports to the country’s largest overseas market.
Relations have sunk to a decade-long low since Beijing blocked imports of Australian coal, wheat and other goods last year. However, it has not succeeded in forcing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s administration to make concessions.
The suspension follows Australia’s decision last month, citing a “national interest”, to cancel two agreements signed by the state of Victoria with China’s multi-billion dollar “Belt and Road” construction initiative. Beijing warned it could react.
The move “signals a deterioration” in official relations but is largely symbolic, said Caitlin Byrne, a specialist in Australia’s diplomatic relations in the Asia-Pacific region. She said the officials had not met as part of the dialogue since 2017.
“It is certainly an important and symbolic step, but in terms of substance the impact is limited here,” said Byrne, director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, Australia.
Beijing will “suspend all activities indefinitely” as part of the strategic economic dialogue between China and Australia, according to a statement by the cabinet planning authority, the National Development and Reform Commission.
A State Department spokesman did not provide the reasons, but accused Australia of “abusing so-called national security reasons to severely restrict and suppress economic and cultural cooperation projects”.
“We call on the Australian side to give up the mentality and ideological prejudice of the Cold War” and “stop the crazy crackdown on Sino-Australian cooperation,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin.
China holds annual economic dialogues with Australia, the United States and several other governments to discuss trade disputes and other issues.
“That is unfortunate. We need the dialogue with China,” said the Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese in Sydney. “But it cannot just be on their terms. It has to match the conditions of both countries.”
China’s relations with Australia, India and a few other neighbors are increasingly strained by the assertiveness of the ruling Communist Party abroad, including claims to disputed territory and allegations that Beijing is trying to sway politics in Australia and other Western democracies.
China blocked imports of most Australian goods last year after its government demanded an investigation into the coronavirus that hit central China in late 2019.
Chinese ministers refuse to take calls from their Australian counterparts.
Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan issued a statement expressing disappointment.
“We remain open to the dialogue and to get involved at ministerial level,” said Tehan.
China is Australia’s No. 1 overseas market, but the impact of the sanctions has been limited as Chinese steel mills are still buying Australian iron ore, the country’s most valuable export product.
McGuirk reported from Canberra.