Australian diplomats are “rolling up their sleeves” finding alternative customers to Beijing after being warned industry is powerless to pacify China, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox has urged Canberra to stand up to “bullying tactics” from Beijing, urging Australian diplomats “get their hands dirty” finding alternative markets to China.
A raft of Australian products have been hit with Chinese trade sanctions since the beginning of last year, including barley, wine, and beef.
In an op-ed for The Australian, Mr Willox warned Australian industry was “clearly powerless” to pacify Beijing, saying “now is the time for our foreign policymakers to step up”.
“Foreign policy sits at the intersection of our economic and national security. For too long our foreign policy has been too passive when it comes to supporting Australia’s commercial interests,” he wrote.
“There are countless examples of ambassadors and others declining to help our companies, large and small, to make connections or conclude deals that would drive growth and jobs for Australians.
“The impression has been that commercial diplomacy is seen as a grubby venture beneath some in our diplomatic corps – a little bit like getting their hands dirty.”
Labor has accused the Coalition of failing to diversify the Australian economy, leaving it exposed to weaponisation from China.
But Mr Birmingham insisted the government was working hard to find “new homes” for Australian products punished by Chinese sanctions, including new contracts for Australian barley across the Middle East and South-East Asia.
“Our diplomatic network, our Austrade officials around the globe well and truly have rolled their sleeves up as they always do in terms of helping to find alternate markets,” he told ABC Radio on Monday.
“This is an ongoing task for our officials working alongside industry to make sure that Australian goods, if they are no longer wanted or being taxed out of viability because of Chinese regulatory decisions, find new homes elsewhere around the world.
“And our networking team is doing that, and they’ll continue to work very closely with the industry groups to make sure that so far as possible we help Aussie exporters to get their premium quality goods into markets as they’ve that done so successfully for so many years.”
Mr Willox said Australia was being “bullied and harassed” by Beijing but urged the government not to “jump at shadows” by responding to jibes from junior Chinese bureaucrats.
“Australia is certainly being used as a straw man to demonstrate what can happen if you question or stand in the way of the new kid on the global block,” he said.
“But let’s keep talking and trading where we can and should. One day we will need each other again, diplomatically and strategically.”