logo logo

All talk, no action at FTA meeting

The Age, Melbourne

All talk, no action at FTA meeting

By Tim Colebatch


19 August 2005

AUSTRALIA and China are unlikely to start real negotiations for a free trade agreement this year, and it could take a long time to end up with a result that tackled "behind the border" issues, a senior trade official has warned.

On the eve of the second round of talks between the Australian and Chinese teams, in Beijing next week, the official said Australia’s goal was not a quick result, but one that would deliver real commercial benefits to Australian companies.

This would mean finding ways to address not only tariffs on Australian exports to China, but the "behind the border" issues such as lack of transparency, inconsistency in decisions, and theft of intellectual property, he said.

"This is going to take a long time, and a lot of effort, to get something that is going to be commercially useful for Australian industry," the official said.

"We are a long way from presenting any negotiating demands to the Chinese.

"But at the back of our mind, as negotiators, is the objective of obtaining preferential liberalisation for Australian traders and investors."

Trade Minister Mark Vaile said the team of 24 officials, led by chief negotiator Rick Wells, will focus on "gaining a detailed understanding of China’s complex regulatory system as it affects Australian trade and investment".

Months of talks with companies and 260 submissions from various parties have raised a long list of business concerns about China, mostly to do with issues such as transparency and unpredictability - not normally part of free trade agreements.

The senior official said Australia expects the third round of talks late this year will also focus on explaining how each country’s system works.

Without a clearer understanding of what China is trying to achieve through its tariffs and regulatory systems, and the potential for change, he said, it is too early to identify Australia’s negotiating priorities.

China likewise has submitted 20 pages of questions about how the Australian system works, including quarantine rulings. The official said it was possible that quarantine "processes" could be on the negotiating table, although not actual rulings.

Trade veterans recall that it took 12 years for China to negotiate its entry into the World Trade Organisation.