The largest trade deal in history has been signed, with 15 countries including Australia agreeing to the pact, which covers 30 per cent of the global economy.
In heralding the benefits of the deal, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham again voiced concern over China’s trading behaviour, urging Beijing to respect international trade rules and “focus on evidence” when making decisions about imports of Australian products.
Leaders agreed to terms on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok last year.
The signing on the dotted line was expected to happen late on Sunday during this year’s virtual meeting.
The countries involved are Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and the ten members of ASEAN, including Indonesia and Vietnam.
The RCEP pact, which has taken eight years to negotiate, surpasses the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in scale after the United States pulled out of that agreement under the Trump Administration.
“The real benefits here are two-fold — one is for our farmers and exporters, they get a more common set of rules across all 15 nations,” Senator Birmingham said on Sunday.
“The other is for our services export industry, they get significant new access across financial, banking, aged care, health care, education and other types of services industries, right into the provision of architectural, engineering or planning services.
“This is about making sure that we have the opportunity for that part of the economy, the services industry, to be able to grow and be able to get the same type of uplift in trade benefits across the region that our goods exporters have had over recent years,” he said.
Much of the focus of RCEP is on standardising trade rules across countries, making it easier for people to do business.
India had been at the negotiating table for much of eight years of talks, before pulling out last year.
“That diminishes some of the value for Australia, particularly given India would’ve been the one RCEP partner with whom we did not previously have any type of free trade agreement,” Senator Birmingham said.
“However, the value of RCEP is still there.”
The deal also does not include the United States, despite the country having $US2 trillion ($2.7 trillion) in trade with the countries which are involved.
Agreement comes amid tensions between Canberra and Beijing
Australia again clashed with China over its military activities in the South China Sea during the ASEAN meeting.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined other leaders condemning “destabilising actions” in the contested waterways.
Chinese state media quoted Premier Li Keqiang as telling the meeting that China was “firmly resolved in safeguarding the region’s peace and stability”.
Australia’s trading relationship with China has strained in recent months.
Barley exports were the first to be targeted, hit with significant tariffs, while meat from some Australian abattoirs was also suspended.
Chinese authorities have launched an investigation into allegations Australia has been dumping wine into the country at low prices, distorting the market.
There have also been concerns raised about Australian exports of cotton, sugar, timber and copper, while millions of dollars of rock lobsters were left stranded at Shanghai Airport earlier this month.
“I welcome the fact that Australia and China have been able to continue as partners in the RCEP agreement,” Senator Birmingham said.
“I urge all parties to the RCEP agreement to engage in implementing not only the letter of it, but also the spirit of it,” he said.
The Federal Opposition said it would pore over the details of the trade deal closely, but warned it could not be used as a distraction from the serious deterioration of the relationship between Canberra and Beijing.
Australian ministers have not been able to talk to their Chinese counterparts for months.
“We’ve got big problems with China at the moment, getting goods into China,” Labor frontbencher Jason Clare said.
“It’s pretty extraordinary that after being in government for seven years, this Government can’t get anyone in Beijing to answer the phone.
“The bottom line is, when you’ve got a country which is your biggest trading partner — we make one in three dollars from trade from China — then you’ve got to lean into it and make sure you’ve got the contacts in China to fix things when there’s a problem,” Mr Clare said.
US President Donald Trump doesn’t attend ASEAN for a third time
Senator Birmingham was hopeful an incoming US administration under Joe Biden might take a less protectionist approach to trade than that of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Mr Trump pulled the United States out of the TPP, arguing it was a bad deal for his country.
The remaining signatories to the deal went ahead with it anyway, and Senator Birmingham argued the “door … is always open” to the US returning.
Mr Trump snubbed the ASEAN meeting again this year, for the third consecutive time.
US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said Mr Trump regretted he was unable to attend the online summit, but stressed the importance of American ties with the region.
“At this time of global crisis, the US-ASEAN strategic partnership has become even more important as we work together to combat the coronavirus,” Mr O’Brien said in remarks at the opening ceremony.
By Matthew Doran