CANBERRA – Australia’s prime minister said Tuesday that China would be violating World Trade Organization rules and a bilateral free trade agreement if it banned Australian coal.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was replying to a report in China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper that said Beijing's main planning agency had given power plants approval to import coal without restrictions, except for Australian coal.
Morrison said he was treating the report as “media speculation” because the Chinese government had yet to clarify its position.
“If that were the case, then that would obviously be in breach of WTO rules,” Morrison told reporters. “It would be obviously in breach of our free trade agreement and so we would hope that’s certainly not the case.”
China has targeted various Australian exports as relations with the country have deteriorated after Australia called for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked about the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin gave no specifics but said China had “recently taken measures against some imported Australian products in accordance with law and regulations."
China has consistently said Australia is entirely responsible for disruptions in economic and political ties motivated by what it sees as anti-Chinese bias among Australian politicians, civic leaders and media outlets.
Wang said China would “never accept" accusations of unfair trade practices, and accused Australia of having politicized bilateral exchanges in trade, investment, science and technology, while targeting Chinese companies with increased security checks on investments.
“We hope that the Australian side will reflect on itself, be consistent with its words and actions, and effectively provide good conditions and atmosphere for China-Australia practical cooperation in various fields, rather than the other way around," Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.
China's pique has pitted Australia’s most important trading relationship against its alliance with the U.S., which has rolled out increasingly harsh measures against Beijing over trade, technology and human rights.
Beijing's grievances against Australia range from accusations of Chinese meddling in Australian politics to the barring of tech giant Huawei and the government's push for an independent investigation into the pandemic that is believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Coal and iron ore, Australia’s most lucrative exports, appear to have suffered due to Chinese barriers, while wine, lumber and other products have also seen their Chinese markets reduced.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Australia was close to finalizing a complaint to the World Trade Organization over Chinese tariffs imposed on barley.
“We see these reports and obviously are deeply troubled by them,” Birmingham told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. referring to the reported coal import ban.
“They, if true, would indicate discriminatory trade practices being deployed by Chinese authorities and we would urge them to rule that out swiftly,” he added.