ACBC View: The wine tariff dispute must not become the new normal

30 Nov 2020

Australian business – not to mention the broader Australian community – cannot afford the thinly disguised hostility that currently surrounds the wine tariff dispute to become the new normal in Australia-China relations.

China’s decision to apply tariffs to Australian wine exports is the latest in a series of measures that seem calculated to provoke anger and outrage in Australia, presumably in the expectation that business and community pressure will compel the government to buckle in response to the 14 grievances.

But Beijing’s calculus is a grave misreading of how Australia responds to the tactics of coercion. The government cannot and will not buckle to strong-arm tactics.

Beijing is clearly aggrieved, but so too are Australian winemakers, barley growers, beef producers, and many more. Pain will also be felt in China from buyers, distributors and consumers who have long enjoyed and benefited from trade with Australia.

It’s far from easy, but endless debate over the rights and wrongs of our respective positions will get us nowhere.

That debate needs to be set to one side. What’s critical is a recognition that the grievances are real. We may not agree with them, but the grievances at the heart of current tensions are genuine and they’re not going away any time soon.

The challenge for all of us is to craft solutions that save face on all sides – no easy task when the grievances are so deeply felt by both sides.

China is very fond of extolling the virtue of win-win solutions. But we’re now a very long way from win-win, and any form of reconciliation will remain a distant prospect for so long as both Beijing and Canberra remain hunkered down in opposing corners.

The Australia China Business Council’s position has been consistent. Australia cannot bend the knee in response to Beijing’s pressure. But resolution requires a level of dialogue that remains elusive.

ACBC is not privy to the deliberations of government, but we do hope that every effort is being invested in finding a circuit breaker in the relationship.

Every avenue needs to be explored – B2B dialogue, special envoys, business council back channels, eminent Chinese Australians – whatever it takes to get us back to the diplomatic table.

Beijing may continue to spurn any and all proposals, but we cannot afford to stop trying. Accepting the current state of play as the new normal is not in Australia’s longer-term national interest.

David Olsson
National President
Australia China Business Council