Farmers the losers if we misjudge China

Opinon: Farmers most to lose if China misjudged

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Talks between Australia and the US should concern all Australian farmers.

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Talks taking place this week in Washington between our Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, and Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, and their US counterparts should be of concern to all Australian farmers.

The discussions concern a proposed ramping-up of Australian participation in US naval exercises in the South China Sea, aimed at reinforcing freedom of navigation rights in a region increasingly coming under China's expansionist influence.

China's none-too-subtle penetration into this sea corridor of vital strategic importance is undoubtedly a matter of concern, especially to Australia, given our heavy reliance on trade with East Asia.

But whether it's wise for us to cosy-up to the US, alone, in a potentially provocative exercise in naval sabre-rattling in this problematic region is a moot point.

Australia has already voiced at the United Nations its formal disapproval of Chinese claims over the disputed island territories, but that's a far cry from sending a few of our proverbial 'gunboats up the river'.

Any participation by us in a show of strength against Chinese territorial expansionism should only be considered as part of a wider regional initiative in which other countries with a vested interest in the area - think Japan, South Korea, Indonesia - also took part.

Otherwise, we risk falling foul again of our largest trading partner, just as we did after Scott Morrison pre-emptively called out China over its handling of the coronavirus.

Australia, of all countries, can ill afford to thumb its nose at China, given our overwhelming reliance on two-way trade with that country.

And here it's not just merchandise trade that's at stake, be it iron ore, coal, wool, beef or wine, but also education and tourism, both of which sectors are now reeling, and shedding staff in droves.

Earlier this month a timely call was made by National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson, urging Morrison to tone down the anti-China rhetoric and work to maintain the mutually beneficial bilateral relationship. Former PM John Howard has made similar noises.

Commentators argue that Australia needs to diversify its export markets and re-ignite its onshore manufacturing capability, but they under-estimate the scale of the transition required. The adjustment will take years.

Probably no agricultural sector would be viewing our ongoing war of words with China more nervously than woolgrowers, who now rely on China for 75 per cent of all wool exports.

Not that the disastrous 36pc drop in greasy wool prices last season was caused by cooling relations between the two countries.

It merely mirrored the decline in China's clothing exports, and the global downturn in consumption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The real worry is whether city folk will ever return to a pre-pandemic pattern of donning a wool suit each morning to go to work, or whether working from home in daggy trackies will be the new norm.

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