Australia yet to strike deal with China for foreign minister's visit: sources

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A schedule for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to visit China has yet to be agreed, although dates were proposed more than two months ago, two sources said on Wednesday, an impasse in Canberra’s efforts to repair strained relations.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Ties suffered in November 2017, after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused Beijing of meddling in Australia’s affairs, and in May, when some Australian wines began to experience delays in clearing Chinese customs to enter their biggest market.

Late in May, Australia proposed dates for Bishop’s travel as part of a series of meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries held since 2014.

A source aware of the protocol said talks over a visit would typically take “weeks”, although a pact remains elusive.

“No agreement has been reached over dates, but they are confident that the meeting will proceed,” said one source briefed on the matter by government officials, who declined to be identified as he was not permitted to speak to the media.

A spokesman for Bishop declined to comment.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said talks continued, but added that the burden of repairing the damage lay on Australia.

“What I want to stress is that a healthy and stable China-Australia relationship accords with the basic interests of both countries and their peoples,” he told reporters.

“We hope that the Australian side meets China halfway, and can, on the basis of mutual respect and equal treatment, do more to benefit the increase of mutual trust and cooperation.”

The row spilled into the trade arena in May, after six Australian wines, including vintages from the world’s biggest-listed winemaker, Treasury Wine Estates Ltd, and Pernod Ricard suffered delays in clearing Chinese customs.

Amid fears that Australian wine sales to China this year would fall short of a A$1-billion ($741-million) forecast, its diplomats began to lobby their Chinese counterparts, and confidence is growing that the lobbying is bearing fruit.

Sales are beginning to flow in China with only minor delays, Australian wine industry executives said.

“The issue is much better now,” said an industry source who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to talk to the media. “If there are delays, companies are now factoring them into shipments.”

Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez