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Beijing’s Ambassador Confirms Lifting of Ban on Australian Timber As China Seeks CPTPP Approval

Timber supplies are seen during a workshop tour in Blackburn, Melbourne, Australia on April 20, 2023. (AAP Image/James Ross)

After three years of tit-for-tat trade disputes, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has confirmed it will resume its importation of Australian timber—effective immediately.

In a rare media appearance, Beijing’s ambassador to Canberra, Xiao Qian, told reporters that the central government’s decision was based on a “serious study” provided to Beijing by Australia on the quarantine risks of Australian timber, which “have satisfied the conditions of the Chinese Customs.”

“Yesterday, the Chinese Customs have formally notified the Australian Minister of Agriculture that, starting from today, China will resume import of Australian timbers,” Xiao said on May 18.

“That is a conclusion [come to] after a serious study based on the materials provided by the Australian side.”

Xiao said that while there were other issues “on the table” to be discussed, the momentum was “positive.”

This follows trade minister Don Farrell’s recent two-day trip to Beijing, where he returned to Australia without concessions on Beijing’s trade bans.

The news also comes a month after Canberra agreed to suspend an appeal to the World Trade Organisation over Beijing’s tariffs on Australian barley.

Xiao said other trade disputes—such as those applied to barley, wine, lobster, coal, and cattle—will be dealt with “one by one” and hoped the disputes would be resolved “as soon as possible.”

‘Great Outcome’ for Timber Industry

Trade Minister Don Farrell said Beijing’s announcement was a “great outcome” for Australia’s forestry industry.

The end of the timber ban, which was imposed by Beijing in 2020, comes after then Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.

“Australian timber was one of the outstanding trade impediments discussed with my counterpart in Beijing last week,” he said on May 18.

“Any step towards resolving the trade impediments is welcome.

“We look forward to the full resumption of trade for all affected products as soon as possible.”

The Chief Executive of the Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA), Joel Fitzgibbon, also welcomed the move.

“I look forward to normalisation of trade relations with regards to the timber log trade, and AFPA will work closely with our impacted members, other stakeholders and the Commonwealth to ensure a smooth transition back to normal trade following today’s decision,” Fitzgibbon said in a statement.

“China has been and will continue to be an important market for Australian timber and wood fibre export products. When the ban came into effect more than two years ago, it caused a great deal of upheaval and uncertainty for many timber exporters and the broader forest sector, and this resolution is welcomed.”

Fitzgibbon added that the quarantine concerns expressed by Beijing resulted in Canberra working on “a range of measures,” including increased inspections of log consignments, monitoring during fumigation, re-inspections after fumigation, and increased audits for all log exporters.

“AFPA and log exporters have worked closely with the Albanese Government, especially Trade Minister Don Farrell, and the former Coalition Government on this issue, and we thank them for their efforts in helping to resolve the quarantine issues that China faced importing logs from Australia.”

The timber trade with Beijing is estimated to be worth $600 million per year.

Chinese Ambassador Wanting to Discuss Joining CPTPP

Xiao told reporters that Beijing was ready to set up a working group to discuss taking part in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The CPTPP is a free trade agreement (FTA) between 11 countries, including Australia, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and New Zealand, that entered into force on Dec. 20, 2018.

Beijing applied to join the CPTPP in 2021, but little progress has been made.

Moreover, entry into the CPTPP requires the approval of all member countries, including Australia.

Australian officials have previously said that Beijing would need to remove all tariffs before Canberra would be willing to consider Beijing’s CPTPP bid, reported the ABC.

Farrell recently returned from Beijing, where he held talks with his Chinese counterpart on the possibility of ending trade restrictions on billions of dollars of Australian export products such as barley, wine, and lobster.

“We’ve explained just how much damage these tariffs and other bans have done to our trading relationship, and we’ve asked for the Chinese government to lift these bans,” Farrell said on May 16.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the talks represented a positive step given the years-long diplomatic freeze over the past three years.

Talks are underway between the two countries on a convenient date for an official visit to Beijing by Albanese.

Xiao was also asked whether detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei was “critical” to re-establishing bilateral relations. Lei has been held in detention for more than two years on charges of spying.

“Her case is different in the sense that it is not for the (Australian) government to make a decision—it is for the Chinese legal authorities to make based on their rules and laws,” Xiao said, adding he had “personal sympathy” for Lei and hoped for a solution “as early as possible.”