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.

Contributor

Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
George Christensen revives diplomatic spat with threat to summons Chinese ambassador
Coalition backbencher wants to know why ambassador threatened a trade boycott after Australia called for international inquiry into coronavirus

Daniel Hurst

10, May, 2020 @4:43 AM

Article image
Apec leaders unable to agree on communique amid US-China trade tensions
Sharp divisions emerge at Port Moresby summit as Japan and US push back against China’s growing influence in the Pacific

Katharine Murphy Political editor

18, Nov, 2018 @7:28 PM

Article image
Australia demands China explain why it has been singled out on trade restrictions
Australia’s trade minister says China should clarify why other nations maintained workable relations despite differences

Daniel Hurst in Canberra

22, Nov, 2020 @6:03 AM

Article image
Australia to join major Asia-Pacific trade deal RCEP but India holds out
Scott Morrison says 15-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would be ‘bigger and better’ with India in it

Ben Doherty and agencies

04, Nov, 2019 @10:32 PM

Article image
Australia's relationship with China in a 'terrible' state after Morrison's US visit, Labor says
Richard Marles accuses PM of taking ‘pot shots against our largest trading partner’ amid US-China tensions

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent

29, Sep, 2019 @2:58 AM

Article image
Mike Pompeo urges Australia to stand up for itself over trade with China
US secretary of state dismisses warning by top security analyst, arguing ‘you can sell your soul for a pile of soy beans or you can protect your people’

Katharine Murphy Political editor

04, Aug, 2019 @8:38 AM

Article image
Birmingham warns MPs to think twice before speaking out on 'sensitive' China matters
Andrew Hastie should have first considered if his Nazi Germany analogy was ‘helpful to Australia’s national interests’, trade minister says

Sarah Martin and agencies

11, Aug, 2019 @1:53 AM

Article image
Scott Morrison travels to Indonesia as Labor embraces free trade agreement
PM to attend Joko Widodo’s inauguration and hold talks on FTA, which opposition leader says will be good for jobs

Amy Remeikis

20, Oct, 2019 @2:34 AM

Article image
PM refuses to stand down Angus Taylor despite NSW police investigation – as it happened
Scott Morrison says no action is required after speaking to the NSW police commissioner. This blog is now closed

Amy Remeikis

26, Nov, 2019 @7:01 AM

Article image
Morrison urged to confront Trump over concerns US-China trade deal is hurting Australia
Labor’s Penny Wong says PM should ‘pick up the phone’ to US president and Mike Pompeo warns Victoria over cooperation in China’s Belt and Road project

Daniel Hurst

24, May, 2020 @5:30 AM