Shanghai: Trade Minister Steven Ciobo delivered a conciliatory speech overnight on the relationship between Australia and China, but businesses working China are complaining that the strains were evident.
Ciobo's address to 500 business people came as tension in the bilateral relationship was blamed for causing a slow-down in customs clearances for Australian products.
"When there is tension in the relationship, there is tension at the port," said an Australian business executive in Shanghai with several decades experience in China.
Ciobo told the room of business people that the two countries had been friends for decades and the Free Trade Agreement would make both Australians and Chinese richer.
"Contrary to scare campaigns, Chinese investment in Australia is modest, while we are now seeing stronger Australian investment into China and we would like more," he said.
Ciobo praised China as "one of the true global giants", and his presence in China - after a freeze on senior Australian politicians entering the country - was called symbolic by AustCham Shanghai chairman Craig Aldous.
The deputy director of the Shanghai municipal commission of commerce, Yang Chao, was the most senior Chinese official in the room.
Ciobo spoke in support of China’s key foreign policy Belt and Road Initiative, which has previously been treated with suspicion by his ministerial colleagues.
"Australia and China share the common goal of improving infrastructure in the region and Australia welcomes the contribution BRI can make to regional infrastructure," he said.
He said a commitment to ongoing dialogue between Australia and China was critical.
He also obliquely raised the issue of the rocky diplomatic relationship, over what Beijing sees as the Turnbull Government’s "anti-China" rhetoric, by citing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement at the World Economic Forum that nations should not retreat to the harbour in the face of a storm.
"For the partnership between Australia and China, if we find ourselves in choppy waters, we should bring our boats together and help each other to find a way to the other shore, avoiding the storm," Ciobo said.
The speech appeared to return to long-standing Australian diplomacy norms on China, acknowledging "respect for our respective histories and world view".
At the Australian food exporter stalls at a major Shanghai import exhibition, Australian food companies told Fairfax Media it was important for a minister to be in China and his presence would help them.
One packaged food company said they had been told by Chinese distributors that Australian products were facing heightened scrutiny at Chinese customs in recent months and it was slow for products to be cleared at the border.
Another meat producer said his Chinese customers were telling him they were concerned the political problems between the Chinese and Australian governments would lead to supply problems.
Ciobo said on Thursday his office had mobilised to assist major Australian wine importer Treasury Wine Estates, which is was facing delays at Chinese customs caused by new country of origin certification rules.
Such issues came up "sporadically" and were not isolated to China, he said.
A major Australian company’s chief executive told Fairfax Media last month the Australian business community was frustrated with the "bad cop" routine on China coming from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and didn’t understand why Ciobo couldn’t play the "good cop" as Trade Minister.
The speech on Thursday night saw Ciobo step up to the good cop role.