Interview on 2CC Breakfast with Stephen Cenatiempo

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership
16 November 2020

Stephen Cenatiempo: Now I mentioned earlier that Australia has signed the long awaited regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 14 other Indo-Pacific nations. This has been negotiated for eight years. Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, and joins us now. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Stephen. Thanks for the opportunity.

Stephen Cenatiempo: On the face of this, seems like a great announcement, but what does it really change for Australian businesses?

Simon Birmingham: So we've got a couple of important changes for Australian business. It brings together nine of our 10 top trading partners into the one trade agreements. And so what that means for many goods exporters is that they're able to send goods across multiple countries in an easier and more seamless way. So we've already negotiated in those previous agreements the reduction of tariffs and easier market access for a lot of those goods, but administratively, it can still be quite complex. So we're simplifying it there for the goods exporters. We're also getting for our services industries, think accountants, engineers, aged care providers, health or hospital providers, financial services, professional services. We're getting market improvements in terms of the access that they can have to trade and do business in those other countries too.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Why did it take so long to negotiate this?

Simon Birmingham: Look, this involving the 16 countries originally - and unfortunately India chose not to conclude negotiations - has been a complex negotiation across all of those different countries, although Australia had a trade agreement in place with all, bar India. So all of those who have concluded, that wasn't the case amongst some of the other participants. So it's the 10 ASEAN countries at the centre, so those South East Asian nations who are so important to our future prosperity and to the stability of our region, together then with the North Asian economies of Japan, Korea and China, as well as ourselves and New Zealand. So you've got a huge disparity in terms of development levels, from well developed nations like ourselves, to less developed economies like Myanmar. And of course, you've got also vast differences in terms of the types of systems of government that are involved. So ideally, these things wouldn't take the eight years, but thankfully, we finally got to a conclusion.

Stephen Cenatiempo: What does this mean for our relationship with China? I mean, the opposition keeps saying that we can't even pick up the phone to our Chinese counterparts. The government keeps denying that. Does this mean that China will fall into line or is it still the gorilla in the room?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we have real difficulties in terms of some of the decisions, administrative and regulatory decisions and actions that China has taken this year, which are hurting some Australian businesses and which we think are unjustified. And we've made our concerns known very plainly to China during the course of this year. It is very frustrating that although the Australian Government stands ready to have ministerial discussions and dialogue with China, they are refusing to come to the table and have that dialogue. And that is very frustrating. We're up for mature discussion. We've made that plain, our door remains very open to that. We want to maintain a mutually-beneficial relationship with China. The ball, though, is very much in their court.

Stephen Cenatiempo: So what obligation does this agreement put on any of the signatory nations, if that's the case with China?

Simon Birmingham: So this agreement, like others, puts in place legal arrangements around the elimination or reduction of tariff rates and preferential access terms. Look, I call very much on China to honour not only the letter of this and previous agreements, but also the spirit of those agreements and the intent of those agreements. Our trade agreements that we've entered into over the last seven years in particular as a government, have delivered enormous benefits, not just through the China deal, but Japan and Korea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that opening up to Canada and Mexico, Vietnam, our bilateral deal with Indonesia. And these have all helped us get into a position where, as a country, we've now had 33 months in a row where we've exported more than we import, and we've seen big growth in exports across a number of different markets and across a number of different categories. It's not just the big resources categories like iron ore that have seen growth. So we know that these deals deliver benefits. They're not perfect. None of us pretend that they are and they don't make other countries behave perfectly. But by having them, it gives us improvement for our businesses and exporters to get in those markets. And it does also gives us some opportunity of recourse in terms of where countries are doing the wrong thing, ultimately, we can work through provisions in these deals or the World Trade Organization rules to appeal and to try to get an independent umpire involved.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Minister, thanks for your time this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

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