Australia’s barley sector may be the next beneficiary of the thawing relationship with Beijing, Trade Minister Don Farrell said following another meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
Farrell, speaking in Detroit after his third meeting with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao in the past two months, said he expects China will remove its 80 percent tariffs on Australian barley exports within the next few weeks. Australia recently suspended its World Trade Organization case to give Beijing an opportunity to review the matter.
“I intend to persist and persevere with all of those trade impediments, with a view to resolving them as quickly as we possibly can,” Farrell said in an interview Saturday. “We’re making progress, but the job is not finished,” he said, adding he expected China to remove the barley tariffs after Beijing’s review “if it’s done properly.”
The comments are the latest sign ties between Australia and its top trading partner are on the mend in the wake of the election of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor government a year ago, with timber exports to China recently following the resumption of coal shipments earlier in 2023. Wine, crayfish, hay and to some extent meat, where not all butchers have received approval from Beijing, remain outstanding issues, Farrell said.
The lifting of timber-export restrictions came after Farrell visited Beijing and held talks with Wang earlier this month. The ministerial-level discussions are a breakthrough after the Chinese government took punitive actions on a range of goods in 2020, furious at a call by then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.
Even as Canberra aims to negotiate an end to sanctions on billions of dollars worth of its agricultural exports, Beijing is pushing for better access for investment and Australia’s support for China joining the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s a sensitive issue given that Canberra is closely tied to the United States on security and relations between Beijing and Washington are extremely strained.
Farrell participated in a meeting of the trade bloc in Detroit and said that his counterparts are focused on finalizing the incorporation of the United Kingdom, the first country to join since 2018. After that, members will talk about the additional nations that have asked to join, Farrell said, pointing out that he had told Wang such decisions must be made by consensus.
“It’s just not a case of, you know, what Australia might or might not want to do,” Farrell said. “It’s a case of what the rest of the countries wish to do.”
Even as it seeks to mend trade ties with China, Australia is pushing to diversify away from the nation, which accounts for about 30 percent of its total trade—more than the US, Japan, South Korea, India the UK and Germany combined, Farrell said.
That push includes new free-trade agreements with India and the UK. Farrell was in Michigan for talks on the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and this upcoming week will be in Brussels in a bid to finalize a deal with the European Union.
“We can walk and chew gum, so we can continue to build on our trading relationship with China, stabilize that relationship, but also diversify our economy so that we have a range of a range of choices,” Farrell said.
Europe’s wheat fields
As extreme weather wreaks havoc on crops in the Americas and North Africa, Europe’s breadbasket is thriving, with ample wheat harvests keeping global food costs under control.
Across northern and eastern Europe, fields are abundant after plentiful spring rain. The strong outlook for the world’s top wheat shippers has helped prices fall to less than half of last year’s record highs, buffering the impact of drought in other growing regions and the shortfall wrought by the war in Ukraine.
This bodes well for lowering food-import bills and could help keep inflation in check. Still, much hinges on June weather, and tight global reserves mean markets remain on edge.
“It’s still a long road to harvest,” said Sebastien Poncelet, senior analyst at Paris-based Agritel. “But for now the situation is OK.”
So far, signs are positive. The blockbuster European crop could push global wheat output to new records in 2023-24, the US Department of Agriculture forecasts. More than 90 percent of France’s soft-wheat has been rated “good” or “very good,” the best in more than a decade, and the government projects the bloc’s total output at 131.5 million tons this year—about 6 percent above the 5-year average.
Vegetation is “really nice” after April and May rains, and sunshine is now arriving, said Philippe Heusele, General Secretary of French growers group AGPB. Cool, wet weather also put German crops on good footing, said Johann Meierhoefer, Agriculture Division Head at farm lobby DBV.
In Romania, production could increase by 13 percent in a rebound from last year’s drought, according to Agritel. Ricardo Luis, who oversees a 5,000 hectare (12,355 acres) farm in the south of the country, is optimistic. If it rains soon, he said, “the situation in some areas can pass from good to very good.”