Chinese companies must decide whether to resume imports of Australian coal, China’s ambassador to Australia said, continuing to deny any embargo on the country’s exports, even as he touted a recent thaw in ties. 

Ambassador Xiao Qian told a news briefing Tuesday in Canberra that there was “no such thing” as official sanctions on Australian exports. Instead, Xiao said Chinese companies may have hesitated to maintain their existing trade relationships as ties between Beijing and Canberra deteriorated.

“As we improve our relationship, as we develop our relationship, we’ll come back to a normal kind of relationship,” Xiao said.

Australia is among several countries who have seen purchases of key products by the world’s second-largest economy dry up without any broad announcement or explanation from Beijing. China’s imports of Australian coal, barley, seafood and other products slowed to a crawl after an April 2020 call by then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in 2021 that China was punishing Australia with economic restrictions, and warned the behavior wouldn’t help improve relations between Beijing and Washington. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent moves to repair relations with both the US and Australia haven’t yet resulted in a return to normal trade flows. 

Xiao said trade volumes instead reflected a shift Chinese businesses’ behavior. The buying and selling of coal is up to companies from the two countries to “make their own decisions,” he said.

Coal importers have begun to strike deals with Australian producers since the National Development and Reform Commission last week flagged an easing of informal trade curbs. Glencore Plc and BHP Group Ltd. are among shippers to have agreed sales, according to people familiar with the details.

Read more: Top Miner BHP Said to Sell Coal to China as Trade Curbs Thaw

Xiao said relations with Australia had a “turnaround” and a “very positive year,” following the election of Anthony Albanese’s government in May 2022. Albanese met with Xi on the sidelines of Group of 20 meetings in Indonesia in November. 

Beijing and Canberra should deepen their collaboration on climate change and critical minerals, he said, singling out electric vehicles and the strategically important metal lithium as areas of potential cooperation.