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Chinese commerce minister reports that Australia and China are in communications over trade dispute

18 May 2020

China’s commerce minister Zhong Shan says the two countries are in communication amid escalating diplomatic tensions over trade and the coronavirus pandemic.

Reuters reports that Shan made the comment when asked about Australia’s request to discuss beef and barley trade issues. Australian trade minister Simon Birmingham previously reported that China was ignoring calls to ease trade tension.

Earlier this month, Birmingham requested a telephone call with Zhong after four large beef exporters were suspended by Chinese customs authorities.

Beijing has also threatened to impose an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley shipments. The move is seen as a retaliatory measure against Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a television interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) on 17 May, Birmingham said that his request for discussions with his Chinese counterpart, “has not been met with a call being accommodated at this stage. We are open to have that discussion, even where there are difficult issues to be discussed."

Birmingham said Australia reserved its rights to bring a case against China at the World Trade Organisation if Beijing imposed the tariffs on Australian barley.

Relations between Canberra and Beijing have been strained amid Australian accusations of Chinese meddling in domestic affairs and concern about what Australia sees as China's growing influence in the Pacific region.

The call for the probe into the coronavirus' origins came amid rising criticism of China's handling of the outbreak by US President Donald Trump, who has said that Beijing should face consequences if it was "knowingly responsible" for the pandemic.

Canberra has insisted the call for the enquiry into the pandemic, which it says most likely originated in a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was not politically targeted at Beijing.

Australia is set to join other countries in pushing for the probe when the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation, gathers next week in Switzerland for its first annual meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began. COVID-19 is the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

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