Lobster looms on Chinese menus but Albanese hedges on Beijing’s trade pact pitch

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Shanghai: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has hailed a Chinese pledge to engage in fair trade after years of friction over bans on Australian products, but has warned that China must meet “high standards” if it wants to join a powerful regional trade pact.

Albanese emerged from meetings with Chinese leaders in Shanghai with a “very positive” response to the country’s promise to engage in open trade, but would not say whether Australia might one day back China on its highly sensitive call to join the free trade agreement known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership.

Trade Minister Don Farrell (left) and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visits the Australian stalls at China International Import Expo in Shanghai.Credit: AAP

“What we’ve said is any country must demonstrate that it can meet the high standards of the agreement,” Albanese said.

The comments send a strong signal to China that it should end unilateral trade restrictions if it is to have any prospect of joining the partnership, a pact among 11 nations with combined economic output worth $US13.5 trillion.

The free trade agreement has its roots in a US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership, developed in part to counter China’s growing economic dominance, with members including Australia, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore.

After former president Donald Trump pulled out of the pact on his first day in office in 2017, it continued as the CP-TPP, raising Chinese anxieties that it had been shut out of Pacific trade deals.

Chinese premier Li Qiang used a major speech in Shanghai on Sunday to ramp up pressure on Australia and others to accede to the membership request, saying China sought to join the trade pact and would abide by the rules of the World Trade Organisation.

“No matter how the world changes, China’s pace of opening up will never stall, and its determination to share development opportunities with the world will never change,” Li said.

Li assured Albanese and an audience of business leaders in Shanghai that China would uphold fair trade agreements as part of plans to import $US17 trillion in goods and services over the next five years.

While the premier’s speech highlighted China’s crucial role in global economic growth, Australian exporters are wary of Beijing’s promises after three years of restrictions on products ranging from coal to barley and timber.

“China will always stand on the right side of history,” Li told the trade fair in Shanghai, adding that this meant upholding the global trading system and the World Trade Organisation.

Australian lobsters seized by Hong Kong Customs, on display on October 15, 2021. Credit: AP

Trade Minister Don Farrell was confident that remaining barriers to lobster and beef exports would be removed “in a very short space of time”, based on his talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Wentao.

While the initial trade restrictions curbed $20 billion in annual exports, that has fallen to about $2 billion as most of the barriers have been eased.

High tariffs on wine are expected to be eased after a review by Chinese authorities over the next five months.

“All of the indications last night from my meeting with Wang Wantou was that it’s going to be a very positive outcome,” Farrell said.

Shortly before his departure for Beijing, Albanese held up a lobster at the trade show, in a message to China that the bans should be lifted.

Albanese said the premier’s remarks were in keeping with his private talks with Li at recent meetings in Jakarta and New Delhi during leadership summits.

“I thought the premier’s comments were very positive and I welcome them,” Albanese told reporters after dining with Li on Saturday night and hearing his speech on Sunday.

“We want to see any impediments which are there for our trade to be removed and dealt with.”

Albanese was cautious, however, on whether China might one day join the regional trade agreement. Asked several times about this, he did not say Australia supported the Chinese request or opposed the request.

Japan opposes the application and about a dozen members of the pact must reach a unanimous decision if any other country is to join.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese agreed that trade talks had been positive. Credit: AAP

“What we’ve said is any country must demonstrate that it can meet the high standards of the agreement,” Albanese said.

He added, however, that he did not want to speak publicly about the remarks he would make in private to Li in their discussions on Monday, when Albanese will also hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Any positions that are advanced tomorrow will be advanced tomorrow, but we haven’t had those discussions yet,” he said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with China’s president at the G20 summit in Bali in 2022. They will meet again on Monday in Beijing. Credit: James Brickwood

Asked if Australia should back China’s membership, BCA global engagement adviser Warwick Smith, a long-time expert on China, said China had yet to show it could qualify.

“It’s always been open for the Chinese to actually meet all the requirements [for membership] not just proposed by Australia and other members of that group,” he said.

“They still have further work to do. And I’m sure that’s what the prime minister will be telling them.”

Australia-China Business Council President David Olsson said the mood was one of optimism, but he warned the business environment would not go back to what it was five years ago.

“All Australian businesses are very conscious of the fact the operating environment is changing,” he said. “They have to do their due diligence.”

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