Why a flight of 150 fruit pickers could turn the tables in Australia's trade war with China

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By Alana Mazzoni For Daily Mail Australia 05:24 27 Dec 2020, updated 16:18 27 Dec 2020

  • East Timor nationals arrived on a special charter plane to work for Aussie farmers
  • The program has improved soured relations between Australia and East Timor 
  • Covid  is ironically behind the boosted relationship between the two nations
  • China has been trying to dominate the Pacific with widespread investment 

Australia’s decision to fly 150 fruit pickers from East Timor to Tasmania may have inadvertently evended the playing field in its ongoing trade war with China.

The East Timor nationals arrived Down Under earlier this month on a special charter plane to work for Aussie farmers picking berries amid a worker shortage.

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The program has improved relations between Australia and the Southeast Asian nation, which sits 600km off the coast of the Northern Territory.

ANU’s National Security College Timor expert Andrea Fahey said the pandemic is ironically behind the boosted relationship between the two nations – and that it could help to re-balance China’s dominance in the Pacific. 

The East Timor nationals arrived Down Under earlier this month on a special charter plane to work for Aussie farmers amid a worker shortage (pictured on December 2)
The program has improved relations between Australia and the Southeast Asian nation, which sits 600km off the coast of the Northern Territory (pictured, the flight leaving East Timor)

The Australian government has given a $304.7million COVID-19 response package to the Pacific and Timor, including testing equipment and isolation facilities.  

‘Because of Covid I think Australia has a chance to go back into improving relations with East Timor,’ Ms Fahey told the Courier Mail.

‘Australia I think is seen as having a clear plan for the Pacific and East Timor for vaccination and economic help, even though China sent a few PPE equipment in the beginning it’s nothing compared to what Australia is doing.’ 

The fruit picking program has offset the multi-billion dollar investment China has put into East Timor, as the communist train tries for economic dominance in the region.

China-state owned firms currently have 20 projects underway in Timor, effectively owning those assets through loans and the country’s natural assets.

‘Strategically that’s the sort of worries we’ve got. We’ve got a China now increasingly using coercion bullying, with or without a military presence moving into our strategic space from all sides of Australia including north with East Timor,’ a senior government security official said. 

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The strengthening of Australia’s ties in the region comes after China suspended imports of timber from NSW and Western Australia after local customs officers said they’d found pests in the cargo.

The ban will be effective on Wednesday and follows previous suspensions of timber shipments from Victoria and Queensland.

Local customs authorities must further strengthen inspections on timber imports from Australia, and return any cargoes found with pests, the General Administration of Customs office said in a statement on its website.

China also banned timber shipments from Tasmania and South Australia from December 3, also blaming ‘pests’ for the boycott. 

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The Chinese government said it was to ‘prevent the pests entering China and to protect our country’s forestry and ecological safety’. 

China introduced the measures after Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic from its source in Wuhan. Pictured: President Xi Jinping
The ban is effective on Wednesday and follows a ban of Tasmanian and South Australian timber from earlier this month. Pictured: wood chips are transported in Gympie in Queensland
China has suspended timber imports from NSW and WA after finding pests in cargo. Pictured: timber logs from a mill in Oberon in NSW

Ties between China and Australia first soured in 2018, and have worsened in recent months, with China imposing a raft of trade measures on Australian products from barley to beef.

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The World Trade Organisation confirmed on Monday the launch of trade dispute consultations over a complaint filed by Australia concerning duties imposed by China on Australian barley imports. 

Former Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, who was replaced in the portfolio last week, lodged an official complaint with the World Trade Organisation about Beijing’s conduct in the trade dispute between the two nations. 

‘We have a series of different actions that China has taken during the course of the year and each come with slightly different criteria for how you might respond at the WTO,’ he said earlier this month. 

‘The application of pressure on [markets] in the Chinese system where businesses within China are state-owned enterprises, being discouraged from purchasing Australian goods [is one].

In May, China imposed 80 per cent tariffs on barley, prompting an official complaint this month to the World Trade Organisation from former trade minister Simon Birmingham. Pictured is a Chinese military parade last year commemorating the Communist Party’s 70th anniversary in power
Fisherman fix a net at a fishing village in Dili, East Timor, December 7, 2020

‘That is a harder point to prove.’ 

In May, China imposed 80 per cent tariffs on barley, prompting an official complaint this month to the World Trade Organisation from former trade minister Simon Birmingham.

Australian wine also incurred 212 per cent import taxes in November, following months of trade intimidation against beef, lobster, timber, lamb and even coal exporters.

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China introduced the measures after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic from its source in Wuhan, China.

How China’s feud with Australia has escalated

2019: Australian intelligence services conclude that China was responsible for a cyber-attack on Australia’s parliament and three largest political parties in the run-up to a May election.

April 2020: Australian PM Scott Morrison begins canvassing his fellow world leaders for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain and France are initially reluctant but more than 100 countries eventually back an investigation. 

April 15: Morrison is one of the few leaders to voice sympathy with Donald Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization, which the US president accuses of bias towards China. 

April 21: China’s embassy accuses Australian foreign minister Peter Dutton of ‘ignorance and bigotry’ and ‘parroting what those Americans have asserted’ after he called for China to be more transparent about the outbreak.  

April 23: Australia’s agriculture minister David Littleproud calls for G20 nations to campaign against the ‘wet markets’ which are common in China and linked to the earliest coronavirus cases.  

April 26: Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye hints at a boycott of Australian wine and beef and says tourists and students might avoid Australia ‘while it’s not so friendly to China’. Canberra dismisses the threat and warns Beijing against ‘economic coercion’. 

May 11: China suspends beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors. These account for more than a third of Australia’s $1.1billion beef exports to China. 

May 18: The World Health Organization backs a partial investigation into the pandemic, but China says it is a ‘joke’ for Australia to claim credit. The same day, China imposes an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley. Australia says it may challenge this at the WTO. 

May 21: China announces new rules for iron ore imports which could allow Australian imports – usually worth $41billion per year – to be singled out for extra bureaucratic checks. 

June 5: Beijing warns tourists against travelling to Australia, alleging racism and violence against the Chinese in connection with Covid-19.  

June 9: China’s Ministry of Education warns students to think carefully about studying in Australia, similarly citing alleged racist incidents.   

June 19: Australia says it is under cyber-attack from a foreign state which government sources say is believed to be China. The attack has been targeting industry, schools, hospitals and government officials, Morrison says.

July 9: Australia suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offers to extend the visas of 10,000 Hong Kongers who are already in Australia over China’s national security law which effectively bans protest.

August 18: China launches 12-month anti-dumping investigation into wines imported from Australia in a major threat to the $6billion industry. 

August 26: Prime Minster Scott Morrison announces he will legislate to stop states and territories signing deals with foreign powers that go against Australia’s foreign policy. Analysts said it is aimed at China.

October 13: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says he’s investigating reports that Chinese customs officials have informally told state-owned steelmakers and power plants to stop Aussie coal, leaving it in ships off-shore.

November 2: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud reveals China is holding up Aussie lobster imports by checking them for minerals.

November 3: Barley, sugar, red wine, logs, coal, lobster and copper imports from Australia unofficially banned under a directive from the government, according to reports.

November 18: China releases bizarre dossier of 14 grievances with Australia. 

November 27: Australian coal exports to China have dropped 96 per cent in the first three weeks of November as 82 ships laden with 8.8million tonnes of coal are left floating off Chinese ports where they have been denied entry. 

November 28: Beijing imposed a 212 per cent tariff on Australia’s $1.2 billion wine exports, claiming they were being ‘dumped’ or sold at below-cost. The claim is denied by both Australia and Chinese importers. 

November 30: Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posted a doctored image showing a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. The move outraged Australians . 

December 12: Australian coal is added to a Chinese blacklist.

December 24: China suspends imports of Australian timber from NSW and WA after local customs officers say they found pests in the cargo.