Simon Birmingham urges China to respect 'spirit' of new Asian trade pact

Australia hopes 15-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will help reset economic relations with China

Simon Birmingham has urged China to respect the “spirit” – not just the letter – of the new 15-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Australia is hoping the deal, signed on Sunday, will help reset economic relations with China after a rolling series of trade disputes or disruptions widely regarded as retaliation for Australian policies towards China.

The deal between Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, including Indonesia and Vietnam, is limited in scope – it contains no tariff reductions. Australia has bilateral deals already with those countries.

Nevertheless, the services sector may stand to benefit from mutual recognition of qualifications and licensing practices, allowing Australian businesses to more easily operate in the 15 countries, which have a population of 2.2 billion.

The signing comes as Scott Morrison has pledged $21m for a new public health emergency centre at the virtual Asean summit.

In remarks to the other leaders, Morrison issued a warning to China that Asean “remains united as always and Australia’s commitment to a region of sovereign, independent states, resilient to coercion, remains absolutely steadfast”.

Relations between the two countries have been strained by Australia’s position on China’s territorial pursuits, perceptions Australia has unfairly targeted China with its foreign interference regime and Morrison’s call for “weapons inspector”-style powers to investigate the source of global disease outbreaks.

In April, China’s ambassador announced a consumer boycott against Australian goods, which was followed by tariffs on Australian goods including barley and disruptions in agricultural and resource exports. In all, disrupted exports are estimated to be worth $19bn.

Australia will now use the RCEP deal to resume in-person meetings with Chinese ministers, which have been suspended due to the dispute.

Birmingham told the Sydney Morning Herald the “ball is very much in China’s court to come to the table for that dialogue”.

“It is crucial that partners like China, as they enter into new agreements like this, deliver not only on the detail of such agreements, but act true to the spirit of them,” he reportedly said.

Birmingham described RCEP as a “hugely symbolically significant agreement” that “says in a really powerful and tangible way that our region … is still committed to the principles of trade, openness and ambition”.

Birmingham told reporters in Canberra that RCEP would give Australian farmers a “common set of rules” while services industries would get “significant new access across financial, banking, aged care, healthcare, education and other types of services”.

Birmingham said it was “disappointing” that India had not signed RCEP, given it is the only country in the grouping with which Australia does not have a free trade deal.

Birmingham said he is “deeply concerned” about China’s anti-dumping investigation into Australian winemakers. He expressed hope that China will not impose a tariff after its interim report this week, but said the “track record” of adverse regulatory decisions was a cause for concern.

Australian Industry Group chief executive, Innes Willox, said although the deal “gives limited new market access to individual markets, the uniform rules for trading in the region will support regional supply chains and improve the international competitiveness of Australian companies”.

He cited “the greater certainty in the movement of data and privacy rules” as measures that will “encourage greater investment in the region, ensuring that Australian companies are well positioned to leverage the region’s growth”.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Michele O’Neil, said the Morrison government “doesn’t know if [RCEP] will create a single job in Australia” and called for an “independent assessment of the value of this deal for Australian workers”.

O’Neil said the union movement supports “fair” trade deals, but past deals had “delivered negligible benefits for the Australian economy and left Australian workers worse off”.

“The agreement could also open up essential services like health, education, water, energy, telecommunications, digital and financial services to private foreign investors and restrict the ability of future governments to regulate them in the public interest.”

In his comments to Asean, Morrison gave new details of Australia’s commitment to spend $500m over three years supporting access to Covid-19 vaccines in south-east Asia and the Pacific, including the $21m contribution to the Asean Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, which was launched last Thursday.

Morrison pledged a further $70m for “resilience and recovery” in line with Asean’s priorities of maritime security, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation.

Australia will also give $232m for the Mekong region for the environment, infrastructure, cyber and critical technologies, and scholarships, he said.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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