Topics: Visit to China, Australia-China relationship, China’s anti-dumping investigation into Australian barley; Sinosteel investment in Oakajee Port Project; China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

Transcript, E&OE

6 November 2019

Question: So we can start with China-Australia. You’re here for just a couple- a few days and then, are you travelling to Beijing? And what kind of access will you have to senior leaders to develop the relationship further after the Sunday meeting between Li Keqiang and [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: Well I travelled here from Bangkok. I travelled here with a number of trade ministers, including Vice Minister Wang Shouwen. We have spent days together in Bangkok, finalising together the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and working on that collaboratively – Australia, China, with our ASEAN and other partners. And it’s a demonstration that collaborating together, that we’re building stronger regional architecture for- collaborating together, we’re building stronger regional architecture for trade relations into the future and for economic ties to be strengthened across the region. I was pleased yesterday to spend the day in the CIIE opening events and WTO ministerial discussions that were convened by Minister Zhong Shan and as well as Vice Minister Wang. These were valuable opportunities for further Australian engagement around both bilateral and multilateral issues and to seek to ensure that we support and continue to work closely together, on not only regional architecture but also the effective operation of the World Trade Organization.

More generally, I’ll be enjoying, spending some time today with the 200 plus Australian business exhibitors who are here for the China International Import Expo. The space that Australia has at CIIE this year is three times what it was last year. The growth in the Australian presence here has been noted by Minister Zhong in his conversations with me. He recognises that the business relations are incredibly strong; that that growth is there and we are grateful for the welcome and the opportunity provided to Australian business.

Question: Minister, do you see the Prime Minister’s meeting with Premier Li as any kind of breakthrough, a shift in this sort of cool period in the relationship we’ve had?

Simon Birmingham: I welcome the fact that the meeting took place between the Prime Minister and Premier Li. I was pleased to be there, as I was last year when the two met. This is my third visit to China over the space of the last 12 months and these opportunities for dialogue and discussion are important in terms of the way in which we continue to build the partnership. We acknowledge that we don’t and won’t agree on everything. But what was reaffirmed very strongly in the discussions between Prime Minister Morrison and Premier Li was that desire to focus on the positive ways to keep building the partnership and to make sure the lines of dialogue and communication are open across the spectrum of issues we deal with.

Question: Well, just a quick follow up on that. So Reuters reported that Australia has concluded that China was behind a cyber-attack on your Parliament and the three biggest political parties. In the interests of [indistinct] relationship, where do the priorities lie? Does trade come above security? How do you factor all this in?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I won’t make any comment in relation to cyber matters. Those matters are dealt with rightly by the appropriate ministers. In terms of Australia’s overall approach, our approach is to be consistent with Australian values, to ensure the long-term security and sovereignty of Australia is rightly protected, but also to drive and deepen our partnerships with China and all of our regional partners and allies as closely as we possibly can. And as I indicated in my remarks here at the opening of the Australia House in Shanghai, the partnership between Australia and China has been good for all our peoples. It has created opportunities for Chinese citizens to enjoy a high quality way of life, to enjoy new opportunities that didn’t exist decades ago, and we welcome that. We want to see that progress continue and we stand as a partner in seeking to do that for the benefit of both our nations and the broader region

Question: There are 63 countries here at the Import Expo and Xi said in his speech yesterday that China is looking forward to striking new free trade agreements. New Zealand has recently updated their FTA. I don’t believe the Australian FTA has been updated already or even if there are negotiations to push forward with that, it’s fallen behind timetable. So as Australia has these differences of viewpoint and debates about security with China, are we on the outer? I mean, are we falling behind the rest of the world who are moving ahead with more modernised free trade agreements?

Simon Birmingham: Well, the scale of our two-way trade is at record levels and seeing incredible growth continue and it’s not just in relation to iron ore, which of course has seen particular growth this year. We’ve seen growth across other product categories. We continue to see more Australian businesses doing more business with China. And so, I think in a practical sense, we can see that and the opportunities created by the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which remains one of the most ambitious agreements that China has ever signed onto, has created and continues to create real opportunities for Australian businesses. And that’s not to say that as time goes by, we won’t seek to seize opportunities to improve upon it. But an exceptional job was done when ChAFTA was negotiated and China did agree to its most ambitious of agreements at the time, and that’s why it continues to serve us incredibly well today.

Question: Minister, can I ask about China’s investigation- anti-dumping investigation into Australian barley. Farmers are telling our reporters that they believe this investigation is going to be extended. They’re very concerned. Do you have any update on that? Do you believe this investigation is politically motivated, and has that been raised at senior levels, perhaps between the Prime Minister and Premier Li?

Simon Birmingham: The Australian Government has expressed our desire to see this investigation concluded in accordance with proper processes. We respect the right of China or any country to undertake investigations into anti-dumping matters or the like. We have complete confidence that the Australian barley industry operates without trade distorting subsidies or any other trade distorting measures and in an entirely commercial way. And that when this investigation is concluded, there will be no basis upon which to find any improper activity by the Australian industry. Now we would hope that it can be concluded in the regular timeframe, and we would encourage that to be the case and be disappointed if it’s not the case, because it’s not just the Australian growers who may suffer a detriment from a prolonged investigation or creation of uncertainty. But ultimately barley, like so many other goods and resources and services supplied from Australia to China, is valued a high quality product for Chinese industry, for malting producers. And those in China and Chinese business who rely upon that high quality Australian Barley also deserve to have the uncertainty removed and the opportunity to strike contracts for the future with confidence.

Question: In Western Australia, Sinosteel has emerged as a major shareholder in the Oakajee Port Project. It’s an important iron ore port. The Austrian Strategic Policy Institute has said this raises national security concern. Do you have any comment on that?

Simon Birmingham: Sinosteel has been a long term investment partner with Australia and has over a very long period of time helped to open up our resources industry and create job opportunities for Australians. Now, in terms of future investments seen in areas of infrastructure, of course, they may be subject to further processes, and I won’t – as is custom – comment on individual [indistinct] cases. But I would note that there is significant difference between, for example, the sale of existing critical infrastructure facilities versus investing in new or significant upgrades to develop new capability for the export of resources from Western Australia or anywhere else in that regard. And ultimately we continue to welcome investment, whether it’s from here or anywhere else around the world. Where it involves critical infrastructure, it will be subject to appropriate, rigorous assessment against the national interest, as indeed all foreign investment that triggers assessment is subject to that assessment against the national interest. And we are mindful of the protection of critical infrastructure assets in Australia. But also making sure that our resources sector and other sectors have the infrastructure they need to succeed. And as I say, there is a distinction that people ought to bear in mind between the sale of existing facilities versus the development or investment in new capability.

Question: Minister can I quickly ask about regulation? The case with Bellamy’s struggling to get a new dairy export license to China has highlighted a problem a lot of Australian companies are having getting new licenses to import agricultural goods into China. Is that an issue that Australian Government’s raised with China? I believe there are some issues. It’s very difficult for diplomats to get access to regulators here. Is that a concern to the Australian Government?

Simon Birmingham: We’ve had some dialogue in relation to non-tariff barriers. Some of the regulatory hurdles that are faced, for example, by beef processes that are of concern to us; to actually see that facilities that have been assessed and clearly of a standard to meet approval to be able to export to China ought to be able to be registered as well. Now, one of the benefits of RCEP as an agreement is that it includes some progress in terms of commitments between the parties to be able to work through non-tariff barriers. Our Indonesia-Australia agreement was the first one where we struck that type of agreement to have a process for addressing non-tariff measures, and we want to continue that now and are looking to continue that as part of what I trust will be the finalised RCEP text when it’s signed. And that will be an opportunity that builds upon the existing terms of ChAFTA through RCEP, and hopefully will provide another vehicle to be able to address those types of concerns.

Question: Is this the kind of thing that would also be in an updated ChAFTA as well? I hear other countries are dealing with these issues in their new free trade agreements.

Simon Birmingham: Well those types of issues can be considered, but it is where through developing new regional architecture in cooperation with China, our ASEAN and other partners, we’re able to establish ChAFTA plus terms in relation to engagement with China, just as we are able to establish gains in terms of our engagement with the other 13 RCEP parties. And that’s the benefit there that without India, as is well acknowledged, we do already have free trade agreements in place with each of the RCEP parties. But it’s the additionality of undertakings between the parties that provides one of the key benefits, especially in terms of bilateral cooperation. And then there are the regional benefits in terms of deeper integration into value and supply chains that [indistinct] new opportunities for Australian businesses and business throughout the region.

Thank you.