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UPDATE 1-Australian lobster, timber halted by Chinese customs checks, fuels trade dispute concerns

(Adds comment from China’s foreign ministry, detail on timber ban, barley exporter)

SYDNEY/BEIJING, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Australia has stopped sending rock lobster to its biggest market, China, after the latter imposed new customs inspections on the live seafood, an industry group and the Australian government said.

China has also halted imports of timber from northeastern Queensland state, Australian media said, and banned barley shipments from Australia-based grain exporter Emerald Grain, owned by Japan’s Sumitomo Corp.

The halt comes amid a deterioration in ties between the two countries, fuelling concern in Australia that the live seafood trade will be the latest sector targeted by Beijing for trade reprisals.

Australia had “serious concerns” about the inspections that began on Friday, its agriculture minister, David Littleproud, said, adding that officials were working to get clarification from Beijing.

The rock lobster is being checked for trace elements of minerals and metals, he told ABC television. The seafood had already been tested before leaving, he added, questioning why the action was being taken against Australian rock lobster.

On Sunday, the Seafood Trade Advisory Group said most Australian exporters had stopped sending lobster to China because of the risk of delays from the stepped-up import inspections.

“To mitigate this risk, a decision has been made by the majority of exporters to stop sending shipments to China until more is known about the new process,” it said.

China bought about 94% of Australia’s rock lobster exports in 2018/19, government data shows.

This year Australia called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, triggering a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic reprisals with China and a raft of trade measures against its exports.

In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the checks were in line with Chinese laws and aimed to guarantee food safety for domestic consumers.

The spokesman, Wang Wenbin, was responding to queries about the inspections at a daily news briefing. The halt in timber shipments came after customs officials repeatedly found pests in imports.

He did not comment on the barley trade, and Emerald Grain did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment. Reuters has reported that China rejected Australia’s appeal to scrap a tariff on barley exports. ($1=1.4267 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; editing by Richard Pullin and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)