June 6, 2018 / 1:13 AM / 4 months ago

Australian winemakers urge PM to mend fences with China

SYDNEY, June 6 (Reuters) - Australian winemakers will on Wednesday hold an emergency meeting with the government as frustration grows that Canberra is unable to break an impasse with China over trade restrictions triggered by a souring of bilateral relations.

The industry body said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull needed to travel to China as soon as possible to put relations back on track and remove blockages on wine imports, a trade worth A$848 million ($647 million) to Australia last year.

As many as six Australian wine companies, including Treasury Wine Estates Ltd - the world’s biggest-listed winemaker - have faced delays getting products through Chinese customs this year amid the diplomatic rift between Canberra and Beijing.

Tony Battaglene, chief executive of the industry body, Wine Federation of Australia, said company representatives would hold talks with Assistant Minister for Agriculture Anne Ruston.

“There is a meeting today with Senator Ruston, where it will be suggested that the prime minister travel to China,” he told Reuters.

“There is obvious concern about China from the government but for us, we must all be aware that they are an extremely important strategic partner for us.”

While the industry has not put a value on the exports languishing at China’s ports, investors are concerned at the prolonged impasse as Australian wine companies have until recently benefited from an insatiable thirst for wine among China’s growing middle class.

Treasury Wine’s share price has dropped 9 percent since the customs delays were revealed on May 17.

Sino-Australian relations have soured in recent months, just two years into a free trade pact, after Canberra accused Beijing of interfering in its domestic affairs.

Turnbull referenced “disturbing reports of Chinese meddling” when he announced plans in late 2017 to introduce legislation to limit foreign influence, including a ban on offshore political donations.

China denied the allegations, and lodged a formal diplomatic protest.

The meeting of Australian wine companies comes just a day after senior government officials accused China of applying undue political pressure on Qantas Airways Ltd to change its website to refer to Taiwan as a Chinese territory.

Self-ruled and democratic Taiwan is claimed by Beijing as a Chinese territory, and is China’s most sensitive diplomatic issue and a potential military flashpoint.

$1 = 1.3108 Australian dollars Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Stephen Coates

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