China Delays Australian Lobster Imports as Tensions Rise

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Australia says Chinese customs officers are delaying imports of some premium shellfish products, in a sign its rock lobster industry could be the latest casualty of growing tensions between Canberra and Beijing.

Some Australian lobster shipments have experienced customs clearance delays in the past few days due to increased import inspections in China, the Seafood Trade Advisory Group said in a statement. Most exporters have decided to halt shipments to China “until more is known about the new process.”

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham called for all importers to be treated equally. “Chinese authorities should rule out the use of any such discriminatory actions,” he said in a statement Monday. Birmingham’s office declined to comment on a report in the South China Morning Post that Beijing is preparing to introduce bans on copper ore and concentrate, as well as sugar this week.

A diplomatic spat intensified between China and Australia following Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s push for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak. That has seen a string of Australian exports to its biggest trading partner subject to what Morrison’s government has described as “economic coercion.”

Barley has been hit with tariffs and wine subjected to anti-subsidy and anti-dumping probes, while Beijing has discouraged tourists and students from visiting Australia. Morrison’s government last month said it was seeking clarification of reports that China has suspended purchases of Australian coal.

Last month, some Chinese cotton mills were verbally told by Beijing government officials to stop buying the fiber from Australia, according to two people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing a private matter.

China accounted for 94% of Australian rock lobster exports worth A$752 million ($527 million) in 2018-19. Live lobsters are typically flown in on ice and need to be consumed within 72 hours of leaving Australia if they don’t go into holding tanks in China, according to Tom Cosentino, executive officer at Southern Rocklobster Ltd.

It isn’t yet clear if the hold ups are related specifically to mounting trade scuffles between the two countries, Cosentino told the Australian Broadcasting Corp

The South China Morning Post cited multiple trade sources in China that it didn’t identify for the expected copper and sugar bans.

Asked about the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was “committed to developing friendly cooperative relations with other countries on the basis of mutual respect.”

“We believe healthy and stable China-Australia relations serve the two peoples’ fundamental interests,” he said.

Australia only exported about 1,066 tons of sugar to China in the nine months to September this year, accounting for only a fraction of its total 2.8 million tons of imports, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Australia sends more than 50% of its copper ore and concentrate to China. For China, Australia accounts for less than 5% of its total imports of the products.

The newspaper also said all timber exports from Australia’s Queensland state had been banned after customs officials found bark beetle in a shipment. The customs agency also ceased barley shipments from Australian grain exporter Emerald Grain after finding a grass-like weed, according to the report. The Melbourne-based company, owned by Japan’s Sumitomo Corp., didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail message seeking comment.

Wang said customs officials had repeatedly found biohazards in Australian timber since the start of the year. He said imported seafood products were inspected and quarantined at the port of entry to guarantee food safety for Chinese consumers.

Australia is the world’s most China-dependent developed economy, and has been seeking to reduce its reliance through a string of trade accords with other nations.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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