Australia’s newly minted Trade Minister Dan Tehan is hoping patience is a virtue as he tries to repair the nation’s damaged relationship with China.
China has been flexing its muscles by targeting Australian exports including coal, beef, wine, seafood, cotton, barley and timber, impacting on regional communities and the economy.
The Asian nation is angry Australia led international calls for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus, and has also expressed frustration at foreign investment and interference laws and the banning of Huawei from the national 5G rollout.
Mr Tehan has donned the trade minister hat for just over one month, after being handed the reins from now Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.
While the minister concedes the relationship is in a difficult spot, he sees China’s own ministerial refresh as an opportunity to make amends.
Mr Tehan recently sent a letter to his new counterpart Wang Wentao, and while he remained mum on which trade disputes were pencilled in, he said it reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to a trade and economic relationship.
“My hope is with the appointment of a new minister in China at the same time as my appointment, that we will be able to get a dialogue in the relationship happening again,” he said.
“This is an issue that we have to remain patient on and I will remain patient on. I’m very keen to have a dialogue, that’s why I’ve written and expressed that desire.
“I’m not going to put a timeframe on certain things. We have to be prepared to play the long game.”
The last formal trade ministers’ meeting between Australia and China was three years ago.
Mr Tehan hopes new US leader Joe Biden will help the situation, with China previously frustrated at the Trump administration.
The new trade minister is hopeful the US will rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a large trade agreement Donald Trump withdrew from in 2017.
Mr Tehan’s priority list also includes finalising trade deals with the European Union and the United Kingdom, which he hopes to ink by the end of the year.
However, he concedes limits on international travel will hinder that timeline.
Mr Tehan says his approach to the trade portfolio can be summarised as proactive, principled and patient.
He sees India, Vietnam and Japan as areas to spread Australia’s trade arms.
As for the World Trade Organisation – where Australia is disputing China’s attack on barley imports – Mr Tehan wants to improve how disagreements are settled.
“We’re heavily reliant on enforcement of trade rules,” he said.
Mr Tehan wants a “renewed emphasis on it as a body that is truly trade liberalising”.
Australia doesn’t plan to take the coal issue to the WTO immediately, instead first aiming to solve the block on exports directly with China.