China leaves $750m of Aussie coal stranded

China cannot escape scrutiny and is mistaken if it believes it can set the terms of its engagement with the world, Australia's top diplomat warns.

The message comes as it was revealed more than 50 vessels containing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Australian coal remain anchored off Chinese ports as trade tensions continue between the two partners.

Foreign Affairs Department secretary Frances Adamson said Beijing's rise to power had resulted in it wanting to set, rather than adopt, international standards.

"China may have reached a point where it believes that it can largely set the terms of its future engagement with the world," she told ANU's National Security College on Wednesday.

"If it has, it is mistaken - and that is because there is far more to be gained for China, and for everyone else, through working constructively and collaboratively within the international system without resorting to pressure or coercion."

Ms Adamson said although the rest of the world had done a lot of thinking about the global powerhouse, it was less apparent that Beijing had considered other countries' reactions to its conduct internationally.

"No power this large and globally integrated can escape scrutiny or debate," she said.

"Defining the character of our enduring peace isn't just about China.

"We have to be influential with the United States, too."


Australian ministers and officials have struggled to get their Chinese counterparts on the phone as tensions with Australia's largest trading partner continue to flare over goods including beef, red wine, seafood, coal and timber.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the holdup of Australian coal was a result of strengthened inspections of imported coal at customs to "better protect" the rights and interests of Chinese importers.

"Customs has found many cases where the imported coal didn't meet our environmental protection standards while conducting risk monitoring and analysis over the safety and quality of imported coal," he said.

Speaking on Today, Scott Morrison was asked about $750m worth of coal being held on ships off China.

The Prime Minister said it was not an "easy issue", but Australia would work with the Chinese government to achieve a "happy coexistence and positive relationship".

"There are obviously tensions there, but those tensions aren't resolved by Australia surrendering its sovereignty," Mr Morrison said.

"Our trade officials and others are very experienced in handling these matters, but this is an extraordinary period of time in the relationship."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he acknowledged the great economic success of China. Picture: Adam Taylor
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he acknowledged the great economic success of China. Picture: Adam Taylor

China has repeatedly demanded respect from Australia, but Mr Morrison said it worked both ways.

"We expect nothing else in return other than ours also be respected as an individual sovereign state who sets our laws about how we run Australia, here in Australia, and consistent with our interests, not at the bequest or at the pressure of any other country," he said.

Mr Morrison also addressed a leaked list of 14 grievances that Beijing has with Australia.

"I can assure Australians that all of our views on those issues remain and are absolute," he said.

"There has been a very clear and very consistent position from Australia and we would happily welcome a dialogue again … and remain open to it now.

"It is not just Australia that benefits, China greatly benefits."

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the reports about Australian coal were concerning.

"This action by China against Australian imports into China is now spreading," Mr Albanese said.

"It's pretty obvious to all that when Australian government ministers can't pick up the phone to their counterparts overseas than that's a real problem for our national interest."

Originally published as China leaves $750m of Aussie coal stranded