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China promotes free trade at import fair, but top Trump officials skip out amid tariff war

Security guards keep watch at the National Exhibition and Convention Center, the venue for the upcoming China International Import Expo, in Shanghai. Photo: AP

China's President Xi Jinping will seek to portray his country as a champion of free trade and dismiss Western concerns about China favouring its own companies at home, as he hosts a huge international import fair in Shanghai this week.

More than 100 Australian businesses are among thousands of international visitors showcasing their products for the huge Chinese market.

And while planning for the expo predates the beginning of US President Donald Trump's tariffs, the trade war is the elephant in the room.

High-level US officials are dodging the event, despite recent statements from Mr Trump that a deal with Beijing to end the escalating tariff battle could happen soon.

Accessing China's domestic market is at the heart of the Trump administration's trade war, with US business surveys in recent years finding increasing difficulties for doing business in the country.

Foreign investors into China and manufacturing firms bear the brunt of the more restrictive rules, which often force overseas companies into joint ventures or block them all together from certain sectors.

But as an exporter of raw materials, food products, education and tourism, Australia has broadly benefitted without rubbing up against the more protectionist aspects of China's economy.

"This is a positive opportunity to highlight China's success and the strength of Australia-China relationship", said Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham during his first visit to China in his new role.

Mr Birmingham's official visit is being seen as paving the way for the normalisation of high-level exchanges, which were subject to a freeze during the latter part of Malcolm Turnbull's prime ministership, as Beijing vented its anger over Australia publicly naming China as a reason for introducing new anti-spying laws.

The Australian business community in China has expressed concern that tension in the diplomatic relationship could spill over to the trading relationship.

But so far it appears there has been little interruption, with education and tourism numbers at record highs and growing demand for Australian products.

"We stay out of politics because we're not experiencing any issues of challenges," said Jayne Hrdlicka, the managing director of the A2 Milk company, which has been making inroads into the Chinese market in recent years.

"We see China as a great opportunity — it's got a huge population and is hungry for good nutritional choices."


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