The collateral damage of Australia’s trade war with China

Last November, exports to China stopped dead. Losing the market has been devastating for businesses.

Amid growing hostilities, China hit Australian industries with a raft of trade sanctions and accusations against Australian products.

In a shock move, Chinese authorities claimed a sample of a rock lobster contained excessive levels of the heavy metal cadmium. 

Trade was effectively shut down, with tonnes of live lobster worth millions of dollars stranded on the tarmac in China awaiting clearance.

“I was extremely surprised that southern rock lobster, being a cold-water species, would have cadmium levels in them,” Mr Blake says. 

Four Corners understands testing by Australian government agencies has found no evidence of contamination in southern rock lobster.

Without China, prices have collapsed. Lobster fishers who were receiving $80 or more per kilo are now getting paid as little as $25 — and barely covering costs.

There are about 150 boats in the Tasmanian lobster fleet – Mr Blake fears a third will have to exit the industry.

“I feel a bit more like a counsellor than I do a [lobster] processor at the moment,” he says.

“I’m getting phone calls every day … only last night, I had a fisherman on the phone crying to me, wondering how he’s going to pay his bills, and this is only the start.”

Lobster is just one of a raft of industries hit by China’s trade sanctions, including beef, wine and barley. 

Professor Rory Medcalf, who heads the National Security College at ANU, believes China is trying to coerce Australia into “essentially supporting China’s interests”. 

Although China maintains its actions are legitimate, there is a widespread view that the sanctions are being used as a weapon – to punish Australia for adopting policies and positions that China doesn’t like.

 “It looks very much like punishment to me,” says Professor Jane Golley, director of the Centre on China in the World at ANU.

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