Diplomatic freeze thaws as Australian government hails Chinese tourism

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN / FAIRFAX MEDIA

Trade minister Simon Birmingham has said record levels of Chinese tourism to Australia is building trust between the two countries, in a speech in Shanghai that ended a year long diplomatic freeze.

Amid a trade war between the US and China, Mr Birmingham, who is also the tourism minister, said that Australia “celebrates China’s economic success to date”, adding that it was good for the region and Australia.

Chinese president Xi Jinping will give a key speech on Monday at the opening of an international trade fair in Shanghai that will be closely watched for pledges for reform to open Chinese markets to US companies.

Mr Birmingham said he welcomed President Donald Trump’s public comments that he held a “constructive conversation” recently with President Xi.

“I hope that through dialogue the US and China can head off any escalation in terms of tariff increases that has been foreshadowed by the US.

“Australia has always urged the parties to talk and engage rather than go down a protectionist path that undermines the type of trade liberalisation that was so critical to the economic growth of China and lifting those millions out of poverty.”

Mr Birmingham said tourism was a stand-out in the Australian relationship with China because it involved “experiencing each other’s country first hand”.

At the launch of Tourism Australia’s promotion of the annual AFL match in Shanghai, Mr Birmingham’s first official event in China, he said one in 50 Australians had visited China, and one in every thousand people in China had travelled to Australia.

Chinese visitors to Australia grew by 13 per cent in the year to June 2018, data released on Friday showed.

Tourism Research Australia data showed a record 1.3 million Chinese visits to Australia, where they spent $11.3 billion, more than a quarter of all spending by overseas tourists.

Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Chinese president Xi Jinping.CREDIT:BLOOMBERG

The growth in Chinese tourists came despite a rancorous debate about Chinese influence and a diplomatic freeze imposed by Beijing on Australian government officials.

Mr Birmingham arrived in Shanghai on Sunday, ahead of a dinner for world leaders and ministers attending the International Import Expo with Mr Xi on Sunday evening.

“The China International Import Expo is an incredible opportunity to highlight the strength of the Chinese economy since it began to open up to the world,” he said.

The expo was an opportunity for Australia to ensure it sells its best produce into the Chinese market.

Around 150 Australian companies are exhibiting at the event, which Xi is scheduled to tour on Monday after giving a keynote speech on trade.

The Chinese government has pitched the International Import Expo as a sign that China is inviting more foreign companies to sell their products to Chinese consumers. Australian meat and dairy companies, multiple wine companies, education, vitamin brands and chemist chains are taking part in the Australian section of the exhibition. Qantas, and the three biggest supermarkets, Coles, Woolworths and Metcash, will have a presence.

The Morrison government has achieved a thaw in relations with China, after a dispute over the Turnbull government’s handling of foreign interference legislation saw Beijing impose a year-long freeze on Australian ministers visiting China in an official capacity.

Mr Birmingham wants to focus on the breadth of the relationship with China, beyond Australia’s traditional heavy reliance on iron ore and coal sales.

The Free Trade Agreement between the two countries has increased opportunities for agricultural products and services. Australian companies experience lower tariffs in China than American companies in many areas, as a result of the FTA.

China and the US have imposed hundreds of billions of dollars in punitive tariffs on each others goods in an escalating trade war.

Mr Trump warned again on Friday he would impose tariffs on remaining Chinese products if a trade deal isn’t struck.

By Kirsty Needham
SMH

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