Last-minute FTA talks hinge on ag

03 Nov, 2014 05:15 AM
NFF president Brent Finlay.
Agriculture is always the hardest and last part of trade negotiations
NFF president Brent Finlay.

AUSTRALIAN trade negotiators and agricultural leaders have been summoned to Beijing this week, in a final push to conclude a decade-long free trade agreement (FTA) discussion with China.

The "five to midnight" talks start on Monday and must be concluded on Friday to ensure the deal can be signed when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Australia for the G20 next week.

"It's going to be an intense week of negotiations," said Brent Finlay, president of the National Farmers' Federation (NFF).

"Agriculture is always the hardest and last part of trade negotiations."

The likely deal with China is shaping up as Australia's most important since an FTA with the United States was signed in 2004.

It is hoped that big gains can be made in agriculture and the service sector, including education, profession services and banking.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb will arrive in Beijing late on Thursday and has what is being described as a "pivotal" meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Gao Hucheng, scheduled for early Friday morning, where a deal is expected to be agreed in principle.

"We are 95 per cent of the way there," said one source with direct knowledge of the negotiations. "But the last 5 per cent is always the hardest."

Agricultural leaders are expected to spend much of this week waiting at a hotel near China's Ministry of Commerce. They are on standby to negotiate last-minute changes and ultimately give their blessing to elements of the package. Representatives from the dairy, red meat and sugar industries will be in Beijing for the week, indicating that a final push will be made in these areas.

"If we can get a good outcome for agriculture it will define our industry for the next 20 years," said Mr Finlay. Agricultural leaders are seeking the same deal as New Zealand achieved when it signed an FTA with China in 2009. But fears remain that this may not be achieved in dairy.

Noel Campbell, chairman of Australian Dairy Farmers, has said it will be "hard" to achieve the same speed of tariff reductions as New Zealand. This may mean Australian dairy producers remain at a price disadvantage to their New Zealand rivals for the early years of any FTA with China.

"The reality is, in a timing sense, we may not get the same deal [as New Zealand] – we may have to wait," Mr Campbell said. Under the deal struck by New Zealand, tariffs on most dairy products will be abolished by 2018.

It is also understood that a final push will also be made to secure greater access for Australian banks to the tightly controlled Chinese market.

"We are very hopeful for a very good deal on services," the source said.

"But we are still working on issues relating to the banking sector."

Australian banks have long complained about the time and cost of obtaining banking licences in China. Even when approval is granted they still remain highly restricted in what services they can offer. In contrast their Chinese rivals are not prevented from competing with Australian banks in the local market once they have gained regulatory approval.

Mr Robb said now was the time for leaders in China and Australia to have the courage to take the bilateral relationship to the next level.

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Jock Munro
3/11/2014 7:30:41 PM

No doubt the NFF and Dairy Australia heavies will be all too willing to let more of our land and infrastructure go to the Chinese government.
4/11/2014 11:09:56 AM

We keep hearing about all the hoped-for benefits of these FTAs. What gets left to the fine print is what we are being asked to trade away in return. Often, these concessions are in the category of sovereign rights and we don't even get to vote on it.
John from Tamworth
4/11/2014 3:51:14 PM

How can you have a "free trade agreement" with a country that has no concept of bankruptcy? We live under the rule of the market place but Chinese companies only have to go to the nearest state owned bank and fill up with a full tank of cash. Just walk away unless we get full unrestricted access for all our products.


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