China slapped an import ban on four Australian abattoirs Tuesday in an escalation of Beijing’s warning of a consumer boycott in retaliation for Canberra’s push for an independent coronavirus probe.
The beef ban comes just days after China flagged plans to slap an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley, bringing the trade to its knees.
Analysts said the move raised concerns of a possible standoff between Australia and its most important trading partner that could spill over into other crucial sectors as the world struggles to navigate the disease-induced economic crisis.
The Financial Times reports China is Australia’s largest trade partner, with two-way trade worth $153bn in the year to the end of June 2019.
However, bilateral relations have sunk following Canberra’s passage of tough foreign interference laws in 2018, which were aimed mainly at Beijing, and its more recent calls both for a coronavirus probe and an end to China’s live animal wet markets.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham tried to allay fears of a trade war overnight, saying shipments of meat from the abattoirs had been suspended over “minor technical” breaches.
“We are concerned that the suspensions appear to be based on highly technical issues, which in some cases date back more than a year,” he added.
“We will work with industry and authorities in both Australia and China to seek to find a solution that allows these businesses to resume their normal operations as soon as possible.”
The four meatworks account for around 35 percent of Australia’s beef exports to China in a trade worth about Aus$1.7 billion (US$1.1 billion), according to national broadcaster ABC.
Tensions between the two have increased since Australia started calling for an independent investigation into the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, which began in China before spreading around the world, killing more than 280,000, infecting millions and shattering the global economy.
China Warns Australia: Drop Coronavirus Probe or Pay an Economic Price https://t.co/V54exGJuOT
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) April 27, 2020
But the calls have drawn retaliatory threats from Beijing, with ambassador Cheng Jingye calling them “dangerous.”
In an interview with the Australian Financial Review last month, he said: “The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now.
“If the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think ‘why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China?’ The tourists may have second thoughts.”
He added: “It is up to the people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?'”
It now appears China is ready to make good on the threat because Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has shown no intention of backing down.
Australia however is not alone in its fight against China.
As Breitbart news reported, a bipartisan U.S. Congress group has slammed China for threatening punitive economic sanctions against any country that opposes it.
The 27 senators and House of Representatives members said China had made “deeply disturbing” threats against long-term ally Australia and the U.S. will stand with the Aussies against China’s bullying.
AFP contributed to this story