While acknowledging that “obviously there are difficulties” with the China relationship, Mr Tehan said he was prepared to “play the long game”.
“I wrote to Minister Wang last week. Obviously he’s new to his portfolio like I’m new to my portfolio. I’m obviously very keen to begin a dialogue with Minister Wang but it’s something I’m happy to be patient [about],” Mr Tehan said.
“Out of respect to the new minister, I’m not going to go into the specific details that I’ve raised in my letter. Needless to say it was a detailed letter setting out a strong willingness from Australia to engage with China on many issues.”
Asked what his ultimate objective was in the Australia-China relationship, the former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade mandarin said: “The end game is that we want very constructive engagement with China across the board and that is what I am seeking to achieve.”
With more than 60 ships carrying Australian coal being unable to unload in China since October, Mr Tehan labelled the trade dispute “incredibly disappointing” and committed to “doing everything I can to seek to engage constructively with China so we can address them”.
He didn’t rule out Australia taking China to the World Trade Organisation over the coal ban, as it has over barley, but said “at the moment we are seeking to resolve this issue bilaterally”.
While wanting to re-open a dialogue with China, Mr Tehan also highlighted India and Vietnam as significant opportunities for Australia to diversify its export markets and said he hoped to conclude free-trade agreements with the United Kingdom and the European Union before the end of the year.
He also revealed one of his major priorities would be pushing the US to join the world’s biggest free-trade deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
”One of the very positive things, and I think this creates an opportunity for us here in Australia, of the Biden administration … is there will be a return to a greater emphasis on multilateralism and, I think, using regional organisations as well,” Mr Tehan said.
“That gives us an opportunity to engage with the US on the World Trade Organisation when it comes to APEC [the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum] and importantly when it comes to the CPTPP.
“With that type of engagement, hopefully that will also enable us to work constructively, and within our economic interests, with China as well.”
Although Australia has signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, there have been concerns from the business community and the Opposition that Canberra could be isolated on the issue on the international stage with the election of Mr Biden.
The EU has committed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and proposed a carbon border tax that will see high-emissions exports hit with an import levy, while Mr Biden has announced a Clean Energy Revolution commitment with a 2050 deadline.
Mr Tehan said Australia would look to engage with the Biden administration on climate change action but he did not want to see carbon tariffs “used as a new form of protectionism”.
“We want to make sure that the engagement on climate change and meeting emissions reduction targets is done in a way which is constructive for global free trade, which is constructive for the trade investment relationships between nations,” Mr Tehan said.
He said carbon tariffs had not been an issue in Australia’s negotiations with Europe over a free-trade agreement.
With Australian tourism hit hard by international border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Tehan also confirmed the government was considering a support package for the sector.
But he said with parts of the sector benefiting significantly from domestic tourism despite state border curbs over Christmas, the government was working out how to assist those businesses that had been hit hardest.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.