Australia yesterday delivered a withering denunciation of China’s trade policies, accusing Beijing of undermining the WTO and foot-dragging on promised economic reforms.
During a usually routine WTO review in Geneva, Switzerland, Australian representatives said that China had benefited “significantly” from 20 years of WTO membership, but was not keeping its end of the bargain.
In an unusually blunt statement made public after the meeting, Canberra said that a slew of sanctions on Australian goods were politically motivated, and showed a “growing gap between China’s rhetoric and its actions.”
Over the past 18 months, China has imposed restrictions on a long list of Australian exports as political relations between the two countries have hit their lowest point in a generation.
“China has increasingly tested global trade rules and norms by engaging in practices that are inconsistent with its WTO commitments,” the Australian government said in a statement. “By undermining agreed trade rules China also undermines the multilateral trading system on which all WTO members rely.”
Australian officials for the first time also revealed that the list — barley, coal, copper ores, cotton, hay, logs, rock lobsters, sugar, wine, beef, citrus fruit, grains and table grapes — now includes dairy products and infant formula.
Experts see China’s sanctions on Australia as a thinly veiled message to countries in the Indo-Pacific region: that challenging Beijing politically would come with serious economic cost.
Canberra has long pushed back against China’s efforts to assert influence in the region — banning Huawei Technologies Co (華為) from key contracts, questioning how the COVID-19 pandemic began, announcing a massive increase in military spending and curbing Chinese “influence operations” in Australia.
At the closed-door Geneva meeting, China reportedly vowed to accelerate efforts to open its markets and implement a “more proactive import policy.”
However, Australia insisted that China’s “market-oriented reforms have not progressed” in the past few years.
December is to mark 20 years since China joined the WTO, an event policymakers in Washington had hoped would bind China to Western-designed international institutions and spur political reform.
Two decades on, access to China’s market remains tightly controlled, state-backed firms dominate many sectors of the economy and the Chinese Communist Party retains an iron grip on power.
The last review of Chinese trade policies was in 2018.
The US, under then-president Donald Trump, questioned China’s legitimacy in the WTO, accusing Beijing of not opening up its market sufficiently.
Responding to the review, US Deputy Permanent Representative to the WTO David Bisbee said expectations that China would embrace open, market-oriented policies have not been realized.
“It appears that China has no inclination to change,” he said. “Instead, China has used the imprimatur of WTO membership to become the WTO’s largest trader, while doubling down on its state-led, non-market approach to trade, to the detriment of workers and businesses in the United States and other countries. Our most fundamental concerns with China’s trade regime remain unaddressed.”
EU Ambassador to the WTO Joao Aguiar Machado in a speech condemned “competition distortions” caused by the activities of state-owned enterprises and called on China to “fully observe its WTO accession commitments by improving transparency and by eliminating these distortions.”
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