Australia has joined 15 countries of the Asian region at a meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to lay the foundations for a large regional free trade agreement.
Trade and Competitiveness Minister Craig Emerson joined his counterparts from the 10 ASEAN countries, along with China, Japan, India, Korea and New Zealand, in taking the first step towards establishing a new regional free trade area – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Dr Emerson said Asia's emerging middle classes would grow to more than three billion people by 2030, and that participating countries already had a combined GDP of about US$20trillion.
"This agreement would be the perfect vehicle for advancing Australia's interests in the Asian Century," Dr Emerson said.
"The successful launch of negotiations by Leaders in Cambodia in November this year will constitute the early delivery of work being conducted for the Gillard Government's White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century."
The agreement would cover eight of Australia's top 10 trading partners, Dr Emerson said.
"By covering almost 60 per cent of Australia's each-way trade, the agreement would give Australian businesses vastly improved opportunities to tap into regional value chains," Dr Emerson said.
"It would also head off concerns about a developing 'noodle bowl' of overlapping trade agreements within the region."
Dr Emerson said the agreement would provide Australian businesses with a genuinely regional platform for trade and investment decisions.
"A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement would help put Australian businesses in the right place at the right time – in the Asian region in the Asian Century," Dr Emerson said.
"I have made clear to my ministerial counterparts that Australia will pursue the inclusion of labour and environment issues in the scope of the agreement once negotiations are launched."
Australia already has a Free Trade Agreement with the ASEAN countries and New Zealand.
"Having this single agreement covering 16 countries would strengthen Australia's economic integration with the fastest growing region on earth in this, the Asian Century," Dr Emerson said.
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