Interview on ABC Drive Brisbane with Steve Austin
Topics: APEC Summit; PNG Electrification Partnership




Steve Austin: Firstly, let’s go to the Federal Trade Minister for Australia, Simon Birmingham. Minister good afternoon.


Simon Birmingham:     Good afternoon Steve, good to be with you.


Steve Austin: How much of an issue is it that US and China couldn’t agree on the final wording?


Simon Birmingham:     Australia has been concerned for some time that trade tensions between China and the US are a risk to global economic growth, are pushing trade liberalisation that has being so essential to economic growth around the world in the recent decades in the wrong direction with increasing protectionist sentiments and obviously unfortunately we saw some of those tensions play out in negotiations around the leaders text at the APEC Summit. We hope there will be a pick-up in discussions and dialogue between now and the G20 Summit coming up in a few weeks’ time and that’s important in terms of ensuring that American leaders and Chinese leaders actually talk about the issues underpinning their dispute and we would really urge them to use the fora that are available to them, the World Trade Organization, the long-standing rules that have helped to grow our global economy and to resolve these disputes.


Steve Austin: The ABC’s Steve Dziedzic who was actually in PNG covering APEC for the ABC said that he was told China is trying to delete or change paragraphs calling for reforms to the World Trade Organization which you just mentioned. Apparently the words level playing field for private firms competing against State-Owned Enterprises are the very words that are under challenge or in question. Can you speak to that at all or do you know anything about that?


Simon Birmingham:     Steve, I don’t have the final iterations of some of the disputed text in front of me but in a general sense I’m aware that there were a handful of elements that were disputed right up until the end by both the United States and China, in the end I’m advised that I think the US accepted the version that other countries like Australia were insistent upon sticking to despite some of their reservations, however China obviously maintained reservations about some elements of the text. And there are sensitivities I know from China when it comes to descriptions as they relate to State-Owned Enterprises. Certainly Australia’s position which is well shown in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that was recently negotiated with a number of other nations is that there should be a fair and competitive playing field. We don’t ask for any more or less than that, we don’t make a judgment for or against State-Owned Enterprises, they exist in elements of Australia through our state governments or through enterprises like Australia Post for example but as long as when they compete in a commercial marketplace they do so on a fair playing field, that is all we look for and ask for.


Steve Austin: Does the Australian Government regard something like the Belt Road or the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese Initiative as a level playing field?


Simon Birmingham:     Belt and Road is a little different. The Chinese Government promoted as being a vehicle for investment, to help, particularly to facilitate economic growth across the region and where that helps some of our neighbouring countries who are less well off than we are or indeed China is, to be able to grow, and grow faster, we welcome that, as long as it does genuinely help them to grow faster, as long and the terms of any loans or financing are sustainable for those countries, and as long as it all respects the sovereignty of those countries. But subject to meeting those criteria we welcome and indeed Prime Minister Morrison has made clear we stand ready to partner with any other nation in terms of investment in our region which we have long pursued and in which we are stepping-up in terms of Pacific countries.  


Steve Austin: Do we regard it as a level-playing road though, the Belt and Road Initiative put up by China?


Simon Birmingham:     Well a level playing field phrase is I guess used as more of phrase in the context of competition between businesses, Belt and Road is more about investment in usually nation building infrastructure or economic infrastructure so far as China explains it. And as I said, where that is going to help a nation to build its economy we welcome it as long as it meets that criteria of being sustainable for that country, productive in terms of being necessary and effective infrastructure to help their economy grow and done under terms that respect the sovereignty of those countries.


Steve Austin: I’m speaking with Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. This is ABC Radio Brisbane and Steve Austin is my name. Minister I ask that because Victoria has already signed up and didn’t actually let the Federal Government know when they did the deal and I assume the Chinese will be approaching other states of Australia to do something similar?


Simon Birmingham:     Well that’s a matter for of course the Chinese Government, we encourage any state to reach out and engage with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were they to be looking at any sort of engagement, many states and territories do have partnerships with different regions or provinces in China. I was of course in Shanghai two weeks ago for the enormous China International Import Expo and I was there with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and I know that she was having very productive engagements representing Queensland business and industry and just as I was doing so at a national level. I think that is a demonstration followed up by Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s visit to Beijing and indeed Scott Morrison’s interactions with Premier Li and President Xi just over the last week and that we are getting in with a positive and respectful relationship with China. We don’t agree on everything but we should be able to work constructively on those areas where we do agree and where we disagree we do so respectfully and maturely as two mature nations do.


Steve Austin: One more question Minister and I’ll let you go. I’m not even sure if you can speak to this but Australia has joined the US, Japan and New Zealand to bring electricity or power and broadband to 70 per cent of Papua New Guinea our nearest northern neighbour just at the tip of Queensland here by 2030. What prompted, it’s not strictly your portfolio but what prompted this?


Simon Birmingham:     I’m not able to speak in too much detail but of course we have a very long relationship with Papua New Guinea, Papua New Guinea of course used to be of course a protectorate of Australia. Independence was granted around four decades ago now and we’ve continued to support PNG. I think it would be an alarming statistic to know that such a large proportion of the PNG population does not currently have access to electricity. We want to see the PNG economy grow, we want to see stability in terms of the political and democratic situation in PNG and all of these policy positions are taken in a manner to try and deliver that and again we work with many partners and there are indeed many partner countries engaged in PNG and this is about ensuing that they have a prosperous future and it was fabulous they were able to host APEC. It was a difficult Summit for them but they did an exceptional job and as the least developed of the APEC economies it is a credit to PNG so, so credibly and successfully.


Steve Austin: Did you hear that your trade counterpart in PNG was confronted by members of the Chinese delegates who apparently barged into his office demanding to meet over the wording of the APEC final communique? Did you hear that?


Simon Birmingham:     I have only heard those media reports and I was in PNG for the Trade Minister’s discussions on Thursday.


Steve Austin: But you didn’t witness it?


Simon Birmingham:     I certainly didn’t witness that and I’ve only heard media commentary.


Steve Austin: Alright ok, Minister thanks so much for coming on this afternoon. Appreciate it.


Simon Birmingham:     My pleasure Steve.