Trade Minister Don Farrell has been given a surprise tour of one of Beijing’s most important historical sites shortly before he is scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart.
Senator Farrell, who is on a two-day trip to China’s capital in an effort to further trade talks, was shown around the Forbidden City on Friday by a senior Chinese Commerce Ministry official.
Speaking to travelling Australian journalists at the opulent 15th century palace, Senator Farrell said he was very privileged to have been invited to visit the “iconic site”.
“I’d just like to say just how much we appreciate the organisation by the Minister of Commerce – who I’ll be meeting a little bit later this afternoon – for organising this very special trip,” he said.
Senator Farrell is due to sit down with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao later on Friday to progress talks on resolving the long-running trade stoush with the hope China will remove its damaging tariffs on Australian exports such as lobster and wine in the near future.
Asked whether the unexpected invitation to the Forbidden City was a good sign for his subsequent meeting with Mr Wang, Senator Farrell responded with a quip.
“Well, I’ll tell you what’s a good sign. As I got out of the car and started walking down here I heard a crow crow and of course I’m an ambassador for the Adelaide Crows, so I think it was a very propitious indication of good luck to hear a crow,” he said.
Don Farrell was greeted by Australian ambassador to China Graham Fletcher on the tarmac in Beijing. Picture: Supplied
Friday’s tour of the Forbidden City was Senator Farrell’s second visit to the World Heritage site after visiting as a tourist in 2005 with his wife and daughter.
Australian officials said the tour was a “welcome development” after earlier playing down expectations for the afternoon’s formal talks aimed at resolving Chinese trade bans on Australian products worth an estimated $20bn a year.
The punishing tariffs came as part of China’s campaign of economic sanctions over anti-foreign interference efforts as well as pushback against the Huawei 5G ban and Australia’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Senator Farrell has said the trade dispute wouldn’t be fixed overnight but he is hopeful for a resolution and plans to return to Canberra with a pathway to resolving the outstanding issues.
“Nothing’s going to do more to achieve peace in our region than strong trading relationships between Australia and China,” Senator Farrell said after disembarking in Beijing on Thursday.
Senator Farrell will meet with Chinese and Australian business representatives in addition to the formal meeting with Mr Wang. He toured the high-end April Gourmet supermarket in Beijing earlier on Friday.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, pictured visiting a laboratory in southwest Sydney on Friday, welcomed Senator Farrell’s trip to China. Picture: Christian Anstey
The chain works with Australians suppliers including Coles and sells popular Australian products such as Leggos pasta sauce, Penfolds wine, Coopers beers and frozen steak.
Senator Farrell noted Penfolds wine products in the store. The 2018 vintage was stockpiled by Chinese suppliers to get around the trade bans.
Later he will meet executives of state-owned enterprise China Oil and Foodstuff Corporation, the largest foodstuff and agriculture supplier in China. The company is also the largest Chinese importer of Australian wheat and oat.
Senator Farrell will use the talks to reiterate that Australia is a reliable supplier of safe and high quality agricultural products. Many Chinese consumers look for Australian brands already, but trade has been badly limited by the bilateral dispute.
Officials are playing down the chance of a major breakthrough in the tensions between Canberra and Beijing this week, but the visit is considered a step in the right direction for the Australian side.
“The fact that they’ve invited me here, the fact that on a Friday afternoon, the minister is giving up his afternoon and evening to meet with me and to have some discussions, I think is very, very positive,” Senator Farrell said on Friday.
“I think it augurs well for the future of our relationship with the China.”
Senator Farrell is in China to further progress talks on resuming normal trade.
Friday’s meeting is the 16th Joint Ministerial Economic Commission, last held in 2017. This week is the first time since 2019 that an Australian trade minister has been invited to China.
Senator Farrell will invite Mr Wang to his family’s winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley, continuing a growing pattern of grapevine diplomacy.
Already he has hosted the UK Trade Minister and the Ukrainian ambassador at the property. He presented business executives with wine from the property on Thursday.
There is growing expectation Anthony Albanese will be invited to Beijing later this year, potentially to mark the 50th anniversary of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam’s landmark trip in 1973.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney on Friday, the Prime Minister said Senator Farrell’s visit to China was “a good thing” and his government “welcomed dialogue” between Beijing and Canberra.
“I have said you don’t achieve anything by having no discussion,” Mr Albanese said.
“What we need is to develop an understanding and dialogue and I have said we will co-operate with China where we can, we will disagree where we must and engage in our national interest.”
Additional reporting: Ben Packham and Tom McIlroy in Beijing.
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