Australia is hoping to reset its embattled trade relationship with China by joining the economic powerhouse and other Asian nations in the largest free-trade deal ever signed.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) finalised on Sunday will grant Australian businesses greater access to 14 nations in the Indo-Pacific including China, Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham described the agreement as a "huge accomplishment" that would unify the trade rules of the participating nations, which have economies worth a combined $30 trillion.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Supplied
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Supplied


"This is an incredibly important agreement in terms of the timing," he said.

"Symbolically, we see huge pressures globally on the trading system and of course pressures that Australia faces, too.

"This agreement signifies that our region, which has been the most economically dynamic region of the world in recent decades, is still committed to openness".

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says the new deal is a ‘huge accomplishment’. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says the new deal is a ‘huge accomplishment’. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

Despite China's threats of trade sanctions and regulatory action against Australian barley, timber, wine, beef, coal, cotton, rock lobsters and copper, Mr Birmingham said he hoped both countries' involvement in the RCEP would ease tensions.

"I welcome the fact that Australia and China have been able to continue as partners in the RCEP agreement, it's an important sign of our willingness to continue to work in regional co-operation, and regional economic partnerships," he said.

"There are difficulties at present, and I am deeply concerned by the fact that in a number of areas Chinese regulatory actions have disrupted trade flows."

Trade tensions between Australia and China have been high since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
Trade tensions between Australia and China have been high since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Mr Birmingham said he urged "all parties" in the agreement to engage in implementing, "not only the letter of it, but also the spirit of it".

"I hope that it will provide a platform for ongoing economic dialogues between all of the parties across the region."

The RCEP deal was eight years in the making and seeks to bring together various bilateral agreements into a single set of trade rules, making it easier for businesses to trade to multiple nations.

Chinese customs officials held up shipments of Australian rock lobsters, causing concern for exporters like Ferguson Australia Group managing director Andrew Ferguson. Picture: The Australian/ Morgan Sette
Chinese customs officials held up shipments of Australian rock lobsters, causing concern for exporters like Ferguson Australia Group managing director Andrew Ferguson. Picture: The Australian/ Morgan Sette

Australian farmers will be able to build better supply chains into the major Asian markets, while it will be easier for businesses to expand operations overseas.

The nations signed up to the deal have also committed to tackle barriers such as customs, quarantine and technical standards, while a common set of rules on intellectual property have been agreed.

Of the 16 countries who started negotiations, only India failed to sign up to the RCEP, but Mr Birmingham said Australia would welcome their entry at any time.

 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the signing of this long-awaited agreement was "good news for Australian businesses".

"Our trade policy is all about supporting Australian jobs, boosting export opportunities and ensuring an open region with even stronger supply chains," he said.

"With one in five Australian jobs reliant on trade, the RCEP Agreement will be crucial as Australia and the region begin to rebuild from the COVID‑19 pandemic.

"This agreement covers the fastest growing region in the world and, as RCEP economies continue to develop and their middle classes grow, it will open up new doors for Australian farmers, businesses and investors."

Originally published as Australia signs largest-ever free trade deal with China



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