Minister Birmingham’s remarks at the Australian Business Network Reception
Thanks very much Paul for that welcome. It’s a delight to be here with you all and can I particularly thank Wayne, as Chair of AustCham here in Thailand, and Brenton, as Chair of AustCham ASEAN — where have you gone Brenton, there you are — for helping to bring this together and, of course, Brendon and your team in particular for doing so.
Can I commence with a bit of an apology? When I do these events at various posts around the world, and particularly across the region, I particularly like to do them as afternoon or evening events, which enables you all to have a glass of wine in your hand. As a South Australian, that usually then enables me to brag about the South Australian wine industry because, almost inevitably, our Embassies and High Commission hosts will have ensured that they are serving South Australian wines at these events to keep me happy, and that usually helps to make me guarantee that I’m doing my bit, beyond my own personal consumption, to lift up our export of great wines. But unfortunately scheduling this morning means that we are here for a morning tea instead, no glasses of wine present, although I won’t judge anyone who chooses to do so.
Look, it is a thrill be here in Bangkok and to have this opportunity to say a few words about our posture as a nation in the region, and particularly here in Thailand, and especially to acknowledge and thank all of you for the work that you do, both individually and collectively. And I noted before to Wayne and Brenton, that AustCham plays an incredible role across so many different country settings in bringing together those who have an interest in Australian business and its place around the region and the world. You’re not always necessarily Australian businesses, or Australian business people, or people who have interests in Australia necessarily, but you do have the one thing in common which is that, in some way, shape or form, you’re interested in the Australian business relationship with countries across our region and the world and, in this case with, in particular, Thailand and the ASEAN countries.
I thank you for the fact that what you do by coming together is provide a strong message that Australia is engaged in our region, not just at a government level, but engaged in terms of real activity that is helping to foster the growth of our region to create more jobs and opportunities, not just in and for Australians, but of course in Thailand, for Thais, for indeed people across the region, and creating that opportunity and that growth that has fuelled and transformed this region over many years. In doing so, you’re helping to, of course, also assist one another: the mentoring, the assistance, the building of networks and contacts that is all so critical to the doing of business, and that is such a crucial thing about the work of networks like AustCham.
You’re also, happily, taking advantage of, having helped to achieve, to advocate for, the type of business relations that’ve been made possible thanks to our network of trade agreements and opening up of economies in this region. Your presence, your work here in Thailand, has helped to grow the economy here, helped to ensure more of those jobs as I said before, but right across this region opening up of trade and investment flows has lifted literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last couple of decades. It’s the economic miracle of our lifetime in this instance, and this region has been at the centre of that, and the common thing that has driven that across this region is the lowering of barriers to trade, the lowering and removal of barriers to investment, and the opening up of opportunities that each of you have of course played a role in seizing. And you’ve been able to do that because governments have been able to negotiate outcomes that make that possible; that have removed those barriers, that have removed those disincentives and to continually make that a greater reality.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the signing, for example, of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, AANZFTA - one of the least attractive acronyms that I have encountered out of many acronyms across the portfolio — but AANZFTA remains the most ambitious of the various free trade agreements that the ASEAN block has negotiated. And it has delivered real and tangible benefits to businesses and consumers in Australia, in Thailand, and across all of the different countries that formed it. Later today, I’ll be joining with my ASEAN counterparts and my New Zealand counterpart to review progress and to talk about how we can upgrade that agreement in future to build a great connectivity between the ten ASEAN economies and Australia and New Zealand.
But right now our big focus in dialogue with ASEAN is, as it has been for a little while, the RCEP negotiations — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. This agreement seeks to bring together a trading block of 16 countries: the ten ASEANs, plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, China and India. If realised, it will encompass some 50 per cent nearly of the world’s population; around one third of global GDP; some of the fastest growing economies in the world.
That’s a huge statement, a huge opportunity. It’s an opportunity of substance: that, if we can, it will provide for more common rules of origin, it will enable businesses to better integrate value chains across the region to seize the opportunities for growth; it will hopefully further reduce tariffs, quotas and provide for more open investment flows across the region. It will of course also not only be that huge step in substance, in further opening up trade and investment in our region, but also a big and symbolic statement at a time when we do see greater protectionist trends happening in parts of the world; more negative commentary about free trade and open markets. But this region, which has benefited immeasurably, as I said, over the last couple of decades from opening up and reform, will actually be sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that we will be sticking with that proven pathway; that we are ambitious for the future and are going to continue on that reform agenda.
Our ambition is for RCEP to be concluded by the end of this year. Now that’s not an easy task and there are still significant hurdles to overcome and, of course, not least of those will be the fact that the one significant country that Australia does not currently have any free trade agreement with is India, sitting at the RCEP table. And that will be something. It will require much hard work and determination, but this isn’t an agreement just about India, it is as I said, about deepening the architecture right across the region in terms of those rules, be they on intellectual property or on e-commerce, as well as on rules of origin and cooperation.
We of course also continue to work closely together, and today we’ll not only discuss AANZFTA between the ASEAN countries and Australia and New Zealand, but also about our cooperation at the World Trade Organization. And this is another important way in which we demonstrate the cooperation that exists across our region and the building of shared and common approaches that we hope to take into our discussion right across the rest of the world.
Agreements like AANZFTA, like the Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement as well, or RCEP if it comes to fruition, are built on global rules of the WTO and its 164 members. But it faces some pressures again, and that’s why it will be wonderful to co-chair with my Thai counterpart a working lunch of our ASEAN Ministers and the New Zealand Minister to talk about how we can cooperate at the WTO and again, together, push back on some of those sentiments that are undermining global cooperation to date.
Because here in Thailand, our relationship goes back even further than the decade of the AANZFTA agreement. The Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement or TAFTA — a slightly neater acronym than AANZFTA, or RCEP even - is the centrepiece and bilateral trade has more than doubled to over $25 billion since the introduction of TAFTA in 2004. Government hasn’t done that, we helped open the door in that sense by negotiating TAFTA, you’ve all done that by walking through that open door and seizing the opportunities that are there as a result.
Just as impressive, and perhaps even more important is some eyes, the two-way investment growth has been significant for the Thai investment in Australia now totalling some $6.9 billion and Australian investment in Thailand worth $3.9 billion. Last night, I had the pleasure of joining with a number of key investors in Australia to hear their perspectives and to make sure we understand how it is we can continue to make sure that Australia is an attractive investment destination for Thailand, but we also talked very directly about the opportunities to further encourage Australian investment here in Thailand, be that investment from superannuation funds and holdings or, of course, from more direct investment. So there’s much more for us to do in terms of furthering the growth of the Australia-Thai relationship, furthering the cooperation we have with ASEAN, and you are all crucial partners in that.
So, please know that our embassy, our Austrade representatives, are there, as I know they work so hard to do, to serve you. As Paul said in his introductory remarks, the work that was done to open up the embassy, to host so many individuals over the weekend, to make sure that at a whole range of levels, their engagement with AustCham and the network is about ensuing we are well placed to hear from you, to represent you, to advocate for you, but also to help you in your advocacy for Australia.
So thanks once again for turning out on this Monday morning to hear from us. I appreciate all that you’re doing and please make sure that we have your views and ideas on how we can take the relationship to the next level; that you share them with our officials, with me, to make sure that we make the best of what is already an incredibly successful relationship.
Thanks very much
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