Australian winemakers press PM to end rift with China

Australian winemakers on Wednesday urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to visit China to resolve diplomatic tensions blamed for trade obstacles that have raised concerns for an export market expected to top A$1 billion ($766 million) this year.

As many as six Australian wine companies, including Treasury Wine Estates Ltd – the world’s biggest-listed winemaker – have faced delays at Chinese customs since Turnbull complained of Chinese political interference late last year.

Six winemakers including Treasury held talks with Assistant Minister for Agriculture Anne Ruston on Wednesday to urge the government to do more to end the trade tensions, according to a source familiar with the talks.

“There is a meeting today with Senator Ruston, where it will be suggested that the prime minister travel to China,” Tony Battaglene, chief executive of industry body the Wine Federation of Australia, told Reuters ahead of the meeting.

“There is obvious concern about China from the government but for us, we must all be aware that they are an extremely important strategic partner for us.”

Beef and citrus industry leaders have also expressed fears the diplomatic spat is harming exports, although China has denied targeting Australian products with customs delays.

Beijing has shunned Australian officials in recent months, casting doubt on a visit to China by Turnbull expected some time later this year. Left unresolved, the issue could become a sore point for the government ahead of elections due next year.

Trade Minister Steven Ciobo played down the exporters’ concerns and said that while Turnbull had “indicated a willingness” to visit China, any trip had to be “married against a number of other competing demands in terms of time”.

“There is a trade irritant that is there, but when you put it in the context of where trade is going, when you look at the growth we’ve had of beef and wine exports, I think it is important that we don’t mischaracterize what is happening,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Ciobo last month became the first elected Australian official to travel to China in more than seven months, but he was largely shunned during his three-day visit.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has not visited China since 2016.

Turnbull did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chinese customs and commerce ministry officials also did not immediately respond.

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