Sky News with Tom Connell
Tom Connell, Host: Well, the glory days of Australia and China's trade relations may be over, but there remains a big focus and hope on lifting dialogue with Beijing out of the deep freeze. The UK has reached an agreement to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership from Friday. China is also mounting a bid to join that trading bloc. So, what would we think of that? I spoke to the Tourism and Trade Minister, Don Farrell a short time ago and started by asking about whether AUKUS could put a thaw on relations on the back burner.
Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: None whatsoever Tom. We've got officials up there this week. I think I've reported to you in the past that one of the things we did after meeting with the Chinese Trade Minister was put some life back into discussions between our officials. That's happening as we speak in China. Things are going well, but of course, it'll take some time to turn this ship around and we're working very hard on it.
Tom Connell: So, because it's not you know an official formal ban or tariff or whatever, it's just the unofficial non acceptance of Australian goods, or whatever it might be, how do you work that out? Do you say, look, here are the ten things we'd really like to see get proper access again, does your counterpart admit that they're not getting proper access, or do they sort of talk in circles? How does that actually work?
Minister for Trade: Each product, is interestingly different Tom. Some relate to tariffs, and some relate to regulatory rules. We're aware of all of the items that have been the subject of these trade impediments and one by one we're working through of them. Some of them, of course, relate to disputes with the World Trade Organisation. Each one we are carefully working through with the Chinese officials and we hope that in the very near future, that results in an opportunity for me to visit China and start making significant progress on removing all of these trade impediments.
Tom Connell: So, is that imminent, the trip?
Minister for Trade: Look, we're not far away. I think I can tell you that.
Tom Connell: Like, a few weeks?
Minister for Trade: The discussions are going well. I don't want to pre-empt how they might finish, but all the messages that are coming back to me from China are very positive.
Tom Connell: As trade relations do normalise do you offer warnings when you're talking to companies and big exporters like, “don't get too reliant again on China like we were last time? If you're a company or an exporter, you never know if we'll be back in the freezer again”. Is that the reality?
Minister for Trade: We have made it very clear that our policy is trade diversification. So that means getting back into China, but also opening up with India, the United Kingdom, with the European Union. All of those trade agreements are either being implemented at the moment or very close to finalised.
Tom Connell: And that's the broad, that's the macro, but at the micro, do you warn companies and, go, "look, I can't guarantee as Trade Minister, that the door is open, but it doesn't shut again?”
Minister for Trade: Look, I talk to all of the companies in my space that I can make contact with and try and give them that sensible message that we are about diversification. For instance, on the weekend, lobsters were imported into India tariff free for the first time. So, a very, very positive sign. As you know, we've had problems with lobsters into China, well, now we're getting them into India.
Tom Connell: Yeah. And so, India is seen as a big part of the answer and also a bulwark against China, a powerhouse, and also a democratic one. Is there any concern, though, about the strength of that democracy under Prime Minister Modi, in particular, around treatment of Muslims?
Minister for Trade: We were there a couple of weeks ago with the Prime Minister. This fellow is a very popular leader in India, and he's coming to Australia in a few weeks as part of the QUAD discussions. We are building a very strong relationship with India. I had discussions with my trade equivalent, and we currently do about $50 billion worth of trade with India - he wants to double that to $100 billion. In the first month of this year, $2.5 billion worth of Australian trade came into India at tariffs lower than the month before. So, things are going well. We want a good relationship with India and of course, as a democracy, we feel that we've got an awful lot in common with that country.
Tom Connell: Right, and clearly more so compared to China as a democracy. But we've raised a lot of concerns previously about the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China. I'm not saying the same thing is going on in India, but is it at least a watching brief that if Australia to have genuine concern, Muslims are being either discriminated against or even persecuted, that we would be willing to raise that?
Minister for Trade: We have a historical position on human rights. We raise them wherever we find them.
Tom Connell: Same for India if that happens.
Minister for Trade: We don't treat India any differently in terms of our approach to human rights. But can I say this, the relationship with India is very, very strong. You could see it at all of the discussions I attended - a very close bond between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Albanese, and I think that's only going to get stronger into the future.
Tom Connell: Now, just finally, China wants to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade group. Would it be an appropriate partner, given the way it's acted on trade?
Minister for Trade: Okay, so the immediate issue before the CPTPP, as it's called -
Tom Connell: I opted not to use that one.
Minister for Trade: No, you can get tied up a bit there, Tom. The immediate issue is dealing with the application by the United Kingdom. All of the countries, and the United Kingdom met last Friday, virtually, and we have made substantial agreement on the admission of the United Kingdom into that agreement. That's our immediate priority. There are still a few steps, Tom, that need to be done.
Tom Connell: Right, but China's in the queue here, isn't it?
Minister for Trade: Yes, but -
Tom Connell: What's your view as Australia's Trade Minister, on China? Because that's a big question, whether they join.
Minister for Trade: The good thing about the United Kingdom’s application was that we've established the boundaries or the rules for accession. There's a range of countries, including China, Taiwan, perhaps Korea, Ecuador, Costa Rica. A lot of countries want to join that agreement because it's obviously very good for long term trading arrangements. We'll consider all of those applications on their merits, but bear in mind this, it's got to be a unanimous decision.
Tom Connell: Yes, it does.
Minister for Trade: One country can't say, look, let's bring in -
Tom Connell: Well, every country has a veto, right, effectively? When you said, we've established the rules on those barriers, established with the UK around trade records and how countries behave and openness and so on, is it fair to say, on current form, China would not be allowed to join?
Minister for Trade: We've established the new rules for accession. If China proceeds with their application, then they'll be treated exactly the same way as we treated the United Kingdom. We'll give consideration to their application, but bear in mind this, there are a lot of other countries who'd also like to join.
Tom Connell: But on those current rules and China's current behaviour, if you like, on trade, they don't seem compatible, do they?
Minister for Trade: We’ve raised very publicly our concerns about the trade impediments that China has imposed on Australia. China has got a right to apply if they so wish, and we'll make decisions based on the rules that we've established, in respect of the United Kingdom’s application.
Tom Connell: China's behaviour on trade in recent years wouldn't accord with what the CPTPP wants to be, though, would it?
Minister for Trade: We'll deal with all of the issues that might arise should China continue with its application in due course and in consultation with our friends, including the United Kingdom, in that agreement.
Tom Connell: All right. Trade Minister Don Farrell, thanks for your time.
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