Via Financial Times

China has suspended imports of red meat from four Australian abattoirs in a move analysts said was “politically motivated punishment” for Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.

The beef ban follows Beijing’s warning at the weekend that it planned to impose punitive tariffs on Australian barley exports. The threat raised tensions with Canberra, which has accused China of threatening “economic coercion” against it during the pandemic.

Simon Birmingham, Australia’s trade minister, said on Tuesday the government had been notified that imports from four abattoirs had been suspended by Chinese authorities over labelling and health certificate requirements.

“We are concerned that the suspensions appear to be based on highly technical issues, which in some cases date back more than a year,” he said.

In 2017, Beijing cited concerns over labelling and health certificates on Australian meat when it temporarily banned beef imports from six processors.

Beijing’s apparent willingness to deploy trade barriers against Canberra is part of an aggressive diplomatic campaign aimed at countering accusations that Covid-19 originated in China, according to analysts. The attacks have included Chinese diplomats claiming that pensioners in French retirement homes were being left to die and posting conspiracy theories on Twitter that the US created the pandemic.

Richard McGregor, an analyst at the Lowy Institute think-tank, said the timing of the suspension, which comes just weeks after Beijing accused Canberra of teaming up with Washington to launch “a political campaign” over the inquiry, suggested it was “government-led, and politically motivated, punishment”.

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“If this is, as it seems, a deliberate attempt to punish Australia, then it certainly gives the lie to Beijing’s previous statements that there might be a consumer-led boycott of Australian goods,” he said.

“Australia should complain loudly about this, not just to stand up for its exporters, but to remind other countries around the world that this is how China behaves if you dare to cross them.” 

The Chinese embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment.

News of the latest trade friction with China prompted a sell off in the Australian dollar, which fell about 0.75 per cent against the US dollar to $0.6430. Shares in Australian Agricultural Company, the nation’s biggest cattle and beef producer, dropped 5 per cent to A$1.03 ($0.67).

China is Australia’s largest trade partner, with two-way trade worth A$235bn ($153bn) in the year to the end of June 2019. However, bilateral relations have sunk following Canberra’s passage of tough foreign interference laws in 2018, which were aimed mainly at Beijing.

The appeal for a virus inquiry provoked a furious reaction from China’s ambassador to Australia. Cheng Jingye warned that tourists and students might have second thoughts about travelling to the country and suggested Chinese consumers might wonder “why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef”.

According to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, the four targeted meat processors are two facilities owned by Brazilian beef company JBS, one by Australian-owned Northern Meat Company and another by Kilcoy Pastoral Company, which is owned by Hosen Capital, the Chinese private equity group.

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Industry experts said the four abattoirs processed more than a fifth of Australia’s A$2bn a year beef exports to China.

Beijing’s threat to impose tariffs of up to 75 per cent on Australian barley imports followed a lengthy anti-dumping investigation by China. Mr Birmingham said Canberra would consider challenging Beijing at the World Trade Organization if it carried out the threat.

“We reserve all rights in relation to continuing to defend and uphold the integrity of Australian farmers and barley producers,” said Mr Birmingham.

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