Australian food, wine and resources exporters fear they may soon be hit by a wave of further Chinese sanctions after Beijing banned Queensland timber imports and suspended trade with another Australian grain exporter.
The latest trade strike comes as the Federal Government scrambles to save $2 million worth of live rock lobsters stranded on the tarmac in Shanghai. China’s Customs agency alleges the lobsters may be contaminated.
And three wine distributors in different Chinese cities have also received sudden notification of an imminent ban on importing wine and other products from Australia, although Chinese authorities are not confirming it and doubts remain about the authenticity of the instructions.
The new uncertainty comes after China’s Customs agency said it would block timber imports from Queensland after finding a bark beetle in a shipment.
Australian grain handler Emerald Grain was also suspended from exporting barley to China over the weekend when local officials claimed to have found weed seeds in a consignment.
Australia’s largest grain exporter, CBH, was blacklisted by Chinese authorities in September for similar reasons.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the Government was aware of both the timber and the barley trade sanctions.
He said Australia would “work with the Chinese authorities to investigate and resolve these issues”.
“Australia has strong regulatory controls that underpin the integrity and biosecurity of all products exported,” Mr Littleproud said.
But the mounting list of Chinese trade punishments has reinforced suspicions in Canberra that Beijing remains intent on using trade sanctions to damage Australia’s economy.
The Chinese Government has already targeted a raft of Australian industries with trade disruptions, including barley, wine, cotton, coal and beef, and ties between the two nations are deeply strained.
The latest sanctions are likely to send a shudder through Australian exporters, who fear more industries could soon be targeted.
One Hangzhou-based wine importer told the ABC his business was one of eight importers summoned to an “emergency meeting” by officials advising that Australian wine imports are now subject to a temporary ban.
Another six imports – wheat, wool, lobster, coal, sugar and copper ore –were also subject to the temporary ban, according to the importer, who was told the measures related to “coronavirus restrictions”.
A second wine distributor in Shanghai received similar instructions in a message that also claimed an imminent ban on all remaining imports of Australian barley and timber.
The directive, supposedly from China’s Ministry of Commerce, banned those Australian imports from November 6, but the distributor said his contacts inside Chinese Customs were not aware of the instructions, and there was some scepticism about their authenticity.
A Sichuan-based colleague also received a similar directive from officials in Beijing.
But a representative of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Beijing said he was unaware of any fresh measures affecting Australian importers.
The new uncertainty comes as Australia’s ambassador, Graham Fletcher, prepares to travel to Shanghai to promote Australian exports during this week’s China International Import Expo – an annual trade fair that in previous years featured large contingents of Australian business representatives showcasing their products.
Sanctions on Australian lobster exports would pose a dire threat to the industry, which typically exports more than 90 per cent of its catch to China.
The Australian rock lobster trade was worth more than $700 million last year. Some shipments were cleared by Chinese authorities late on Monday, but it is not clear if the problem has yet been solved.
Over the weekend, China’s Government also rejected an Australian grain industry appeal against the hefty barley tariffs it imposed in May.
The Federal Government is now consulting with a range of exporters hit by Chinese sanctions — including the red meat sector — about whether it should lodge a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization.