China says it is suspending further meetings in an economic dialogue with Australia in the latest sign of worsening relations.
Experts called the move largely symbolic because the last meeting of the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue framework took place four years ago.
Australian business leaders, though, say they believe Thursday’s suspension is a new low in the bilateral relationship.
Chinese state media said Australia disrupted economic cooperation through such actions as banning Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G telecommunications network. China also accused Canberra “of a Cold War mindset and ideological discrimination.”
Beijing’s decision will formally stop contact between key trade officials. Ministerial collaboration between the two governments had already been suspended for more than a year.
In Canberra, Trade Minister Dan Tehan said he was disappointed and remained open to dialogue and “engaging at the ministerial level.”
Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese also urged both sides to sort out their differences.
“This is unfortunate," Albanese said. "We do need dialogue with China. It cannot be just on their terms, though. It has got to be on both countries’ terms and so this is regrettable.”
China is, by far, Australia’s biggest trading partner, but tensions have intensified in recent years. Canberra’s 2018 Huawei decision infuriated Beijing. That hostility escalated last year after disputes over the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, national security and human rights.
China later imposed trade sanctions on valuable Australian exports, although Australian exports of iron ore - a key ingredient in steel making - have not been affected.
Last month Canberra cancelled two agreements between China and the state of Victoria.
Tim Harcourt, an economist at the University of Technology Sydney, however, says he believes the relationship must improve.
“Australia needs China and China needs Australia," Harcourt said. "China has incredible dependency in energy security as we mentioned with iron ore particularly with Brazil out of action at the moment with COVID and also food security and a need for infrastructure. So, in some ways, yes, you know both countries are dependent on each other, hence the complementarity. Yes, you do want the relationship to get on more of an even keel as it used to be. [It is] not perfect and very different systems, very different values, but at least workable I think, you know, is the equilibrium you want to reach.”
Tensions between Australia and China comes as the G-7 group of nations has called on Beijing to respect fundamental rights and freedoms.
China has been accused by the United States and some European countries of violating the human rights of its minority Muslim population in Xinjiang province, armed threats against Taiwan and economic coercion.