Sunday, April 18, 2021

Australian government raises fears about the ‘human cost’ of China coal standoff | Australian foreign policy


The Morrison government is appealing to China to rule out discriminating against Australian coal, with the resources minister raising fears about the “human cost” of the standoff as seafarers are stuck aboard more than 70 ships waiting to unload the product.

In an interview with Guardian Australia, Keith Pitt said the cost of coal had increased as a result of the impasse but Canberra was “yet to hear anything through official channels” about any change in Beijing’s treatment of the Australian commodity.

Like other Australian ministers, Pitt has been unable to secure a call with his Chinese counterpart amid ongoing tensions in the relationship between the two countries, but he said he remained hopeful of dialogue: “My door’s always open.”

The comments came after the opposition said Australian exporters faced another grim year driven by tensions with China.

Labor raised fears of “a humanitarian crisis brewing off the coast of China” with about 1,500 seafarers believed to be aboard the 73 ships.

Beijing has told the owners of nearly 8m tonnes of Australian coal to find new buyers because the cargo will not be unloaded in China, according to the Australian newspaper, but China’s embassy in Canberra has yet to respond to Guardian Australia’s request for confirmation.

Pitt said there were about 70 ships “in what’s called the stack, waiting to unload” Australian coal. The resources minister said this coal had already been purchased and paid for by the Chinese buyers, but raised concern about the welfare of the seafarers.

“Clearly, there’s a human cost to these delays,” Pitt, a Queensland Nationals MP, said in a phone interview on Friday.

“What I’d say to my Chinese colleagues is: I’d ask them to rule out any discriminatory trade practices against our country.

“We are yet to hear anything through official channels that there has been any change. And as we do with all of our trading partners, we ask them to meet the agreements which we have signed, as Australia meets our end of those arrangements.”

Pitt said he had met through videoconference or teleconference with a number of Australia’s other trading partners, including the US, South Korea and Japan, throughout the course of the pandemic.

“We did look to organise a similar meeting with my Chinese counterpart late last year, which was unsuccessful, at this stage.”

Senior Australian government ministers – including the foreign minister, Marise Payne, former trade minister Simon Birmingham and agriculture minister, David Littleproud, have reported being unable to secure phone calls with their Chinese counterparts since early last year.

Already strained relations took a turn for the worse after Beijing objected to Australia’s public calls for a global Covid-19 inquiry in April. China took retaliatory actions against a range of Australian export sectors, including imposing tariffs on barley and wine and placing informal bans on Australian cotton and coal.

Analysts have said thermal coal prices in China were about US$20 a tonne higher than elsewhere in December as a result of the ban.

Pitt said Australia’s resources sector had experienced difficulties in the past “and they activate their own contingency plans in terms of seeking out other markets”.

“And in fact, the price for coal has continued to increase as a result of these current actions and what we’ve seen is a higher price for Australian coal in other markets,” he said.

“Like all good commercial businesses, Australian businesses are looking to maximise their returns for their shareholders and keep employing more Australians.”

Pitt attempted to play down the broader impact of the current coal dispute.

He said China was “a very strong market” but not the biggest market for Australian thermal coal. Japan took about twice as much as China on average. The minister said Australia’s thermal coal exports to India in January to November 2020 were double the level during the same period in 2019.

Pitt said Australia normally received an indication about the resetting of China’s coal quotas by late January each year, “so we will wait and see what those decisions are”.

“Australia has a quality product, which we deliver incredibly efficiently and effectively into those markets – we’re in the right place in terms of transport and logistics. And those fundamentals will never change.”

Even as more of Australia’s trading partners adopt commitments to net zero emissions by 2050, Pitt remained upbeat about the outlook for coal exports.

“Well, Japan has said that this is not ruling out coal. Many of our trading partners are looking to use technology in terms of meeting their emission targets, and Australia will continue to provide that high-quality product.”

On Friday, Labor called on Scott Morrison to dump backbencher George Christensen from the role of chairing parliament’s joint standing committee on trade and investment growth “due to his record of incendiary and false comments about China”.

“Mr Christensen should be removed and replaced with a more sensible and balanced MP who would work to improve Australia’s trading relationships, rather than make them worse,” Labor’s trade spokesperson, Madeleine King, said in a statement.

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