Media doorstop in Suzhou, China

Topics: Monash University-South East University Joint Graduate School; Australia-China trade relationship; Free Trade Agreement; Huawei.

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

24 October 2013

ANDREW ROBB: Today, there is quite a symbolic coincidence – it is in fact 10 years to the day since the Australia-China Economic and Trade Framework was signed in the presence of Prime Minister John Howard and President Hu Jintao. So it's a privilege for me, 10 years to the day after the signing of that historic agreement, to be here and, on behalf of Tony Abbott, opening this wonderful university, this joint venture, between South East University and Monash University.

I've been on a tour of the facility since the opening ceremony, and some of the state-of-the-art – you are seeing the future in this place, some of the industrial design and other courses that they're running – already are producing the most outstanding results. So it's a wonderful thing, it showcases Australian education, it showcases Australian ingenuity, in combination with all the talents that you get from China.

So you can see how education is the greatest opportunity to create linkages between our two countries. There are over 100,000 Chinese students in Australia. These sorts of joint ventures provide the most significant opportunity for that to be reversed – for many Australian students to experience education in China and to build trust, and to build relationships. Once you build trust, you build relationships, you then build trade, you build investment, and it becomes then a wonderful opportunity between the two countries to make the most of our mutual strengths.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you a question that, I suppose, gets back to the core of this – just for some people in Australia they might wonder 'well, relating to the free trade deal, we're trading with China anyway, why the importance of this? Why do we need to have that free trade deal? Can't we just keep going the way we are now?'

ANDREW ROBB: The free trade deal is part of a whole matrix of opportunities. I mean, the signing of that agreement 10 years ago to today witnessed by Prime Minister Howard and President Hu Jintao set a trade and economic framework for the future between our two countries. Out of that agreement grew the start of the free trade negotiations. But also out of that agreement there was a realisation that the governments of both countries were encouraging in all sorts of areas, including education, for Australia and China to get together, to join partnerships, to do things in a way which turbo-charged the output, enabled us to use our strengths of education to meet some of their needs in this country. So the Free Trade Agreement will just turbo-charge much of what's already going on.

Every Australia university has a relationship in China of some sort. Now this is the first international university which has gained a licence to produce post-graduate students in joint venture with a Chinese university. It's a further extension of the depth of that relationship, but the Free Trade Agreement gives us even more preference ahead of other countries. It shows to everyone involved in business and in the communities in both countries that there is a special relationship building, and as a consequence, you know, China is now our biggest export market and we need to build on that relationship.

In many ways, the strengths of Australia and the needs of China are very complementary, and the needs of Australia and the strengths of China are very complementary. So it is a great union for us to get involved economically, culturally, socially, and if we do that, it's going to increase the prosperity of both countries.

JOURNALIST: Do you think removing the ban on Huawei tendering for the National Broadband Network may smooth the way for a free trade deal?

ANDREW ROBB: Look, there is a review of that issue at the present time. Let's wait and see the outcome of that review. What I've said in the past is that notwithstanding that issue, Huawei is a very prominent and successful company in Australia, doing a good job.

JOURNALIST: It's been a big negative in the relationship, that ban on Huawei. Don't you think it could genuinely improve the relationship and make it easier to sign that deal?

ANDREW ROBB: I don't see a connection between those issues. Huawei has got a very strong toehold in Australia in a commercial sense. It is working very successfully with lots of Australian companies and its future is guaranteed in Australia. So, to me, that is not going to be part of influencing the Free Trade Agreement, and there's a review going on.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the new government is committed to the reverse Colombo Plan. Do you think there should be more Australian universities looking to duplicate deals like this? As you said, this is the first one to be licensed here, do you think there are opportunities for Aussie unis to look abroad more, to take advantage of that plan?

ANDREW ROBB: Well, the government certainly is trying to show that a very high priority for our government is for higher education, vocational education, to look outside our shores at the opportunity. But let's give credit where it's due – you go back 20 years, the income from international education to Australia was $500 million. Now the income is of the order of $17 billion. They have been the third or fourth highest export in recent years in Australia, and they've come from nowhere, virtually.

That has been because of the entrepreneurship and the talent within our universities – they did that. We're saying as a government we think that the opportunity's there to greatly grow it. Anything we can do to help that we will.

But I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to say our universities should be out there – they're all out there now. Every Australian university has got some relationship with China in an educational sense – many of them for many, many years, you know, well over 20 years, as Monash has had, and they've already cemented strong relationships. I think there are many more opportunities, not just in China, but throughout the region.

Our view is that the New Colombo Plan will give a signal to the rest of the region that the Australian government is very keen, not just to see students come to Australia, but for our own students. It's got a wider message, as well as that education message – it's saying that we truly want to integrate, develop linkages in a very profound way, and not just a one-way street – to have a two-way street in all of that, not only with China, but all of the countries in the region, that opportunity will exist.

JOURNALIST: Minister, are you concerned that Australia is actually too reliant on China? I think one of the statistics that I'm using for trade is that we are more reliant on China than any other nation in 68 years. We are more reliant than we were on Britain after the Second World War, far more reliant than we were on Japan in the 1970s. Are you concerned just how, I think it's 36 percent of our trade now goes to China, and how reliant we are on this one, single relationship?

ANDREW ROBB: Well, again, I think there are 124 nations in the world that can say their biggest trading partner is China – so we're not alone in that respect. And in many ways, that shows that we can't even take the trade that we are doing into China for granted. We've got to keep working, we've got to be on the front foot as a country to maintain and grow that relationship. It's why the Free Trade Agreement is so important. You can't just sit still. But I think if we don't sit still, if we don't take the relationship for granted, we work at it, then there are enormous opportunities still in China.

Now, that's not going to stop us broadening the depth of our relationship elsewhere. When I come to China in the next few weeks, to progress the Free Trade Agreement, I'll be doing the same in Japan, I'll be doing the same in South Korea. In between that time, I'll be negotiating further with the Trans Pacific Partnership, another 12 nations. Then we're doing the [WTO plurilateral] Services Agreement, which involves another 50 nations, so we can chew gum and walk at the same time, and in trade we have to do that.

I don't think that we are at all reliant. We are taking advantage of the opportunities that have existed. We are very strong in iron ore, in coal and other resources. China emerged as a big demand for those resources, as have other parts of the region. We took advantage of it because we're good at it. We've been doing it for 150 years and we'd be stupid not to.

But I don't think in that process that we have, in the end, put all our eggs in one basket. So much of the rest of our trading performance does rely on traditional relationships, but very much across the region, where I think a lot of our future does lie, certainly in the next hundred years in a trading sense.

JOURNALIST: Minister can I just ask you, with this one-year deadline that the government has imposed on itself to achieve this deal, I know we asked you about this yesterday, but for example, what's from stopping the Chinese side from just holding out to the very end and then knowing that Australia really wants the deal, banking on us caving in on some key elements because we want the deal to come through?

ANDREW ROBB: Well, those comments were as a result of the discussions we'd already had, both the Prime Minister and myself at the highest levels. Tony Abbott had met with [Chinese] President Xi and [Chinese] Premier Li and I had met with the [Chinese] Commerce Minister, Minister Gao. There is in our view an enthusiasm to get on with it.

The other thing is that China at the moment, as I said, [is] the biggest trading partner with 124 countries in the world. There are a lot of people turning up on their doorstep, trying to influence trade and investment. There are lots of negotiations that the Chinese government is participating in, in a trading sense. If we don't put out a signal that we rate this Free Trade Agreement highly, then we will be pushed to the back of the queue, and justifiably. We have said to the Chinese leadership 'this is very important to us in our view, for our two countries'.

And I feel that signposting that, following discussions we'd had, where we'd both indicated a keenness to get on with it and get this concluded after eight years, then I think it was quite sensible and it did show that we were prepared to publically signpost what was discussed privately between the leaders.

JOURNALIST: In terms of Chinese investment, one aspect has been a big increase coming into Australia, Minister, of residential property. I think it's up about 60 percent in two years. Is there a concern that there might be too much of that? Is the government looking at potentially any changes?

ANDREW ROBB: No, look, I've gone back in history and every time there's a sort of spurt, and there have been with the Japanese coming in the 80s, you saw 60 percent growth rates then, but 60 percent of not a big lot. So it's quite easy to get big percentages.

In many ways, there'd be a lot of Australians who've benefitted from that increase, given things have been flat in Australia in a general sense, in a lot of sectors. To have that extra demand has, I think, helped put a sort of a floor, in some areas, under housing prices, and has boosted confidence. All of these things have got to be seen in the context of the relationship.

If you just look historically, where a major trading relationship develops, you then get a two-way development, ultimately, in investment relationships. It is understandable, it's a good thing, and it's happening, and it will go on. I don't think, and the government certainly does not feel, that the level of interest by some Chinese in Australian housing is out of the ordinary. We're just pleased that it is our largest export market, and we are determined to make sure that we grow that market.

JOURNALIST: What's your view, just finally, on the Significant Investor Visa and the time it's taken to process a lot of those applications? Have there been issues around source of funds and the like?

ANDREW ROBB: Not too my knowledge. I must admit that, four weeks into office, I know my colleague, Scott Morrison, is across it. But certainly, if there were issues, they would have been brought to my attention.

JOURNALIST: Is it a policy you support strongly?

ANDREW ROBB: I think it is – again, it's all part of growing that relationship. Australia has, historically, and it will for as long as any of us are around, and our kids and our grandchildren, we will rely on foreign investment. If we can get successful people from other countries, including China, to come and invest in businesses in Australia, that's a good thing for Australia.

It'll be more jobs, more income, greater relationships, kids often will be educated in Australia, it builds the linkages and it's a great thing for the future. We've just got to have – we have to have a broad strategy to maintaining jobs in Australia. It's a very competitive world. That's not the be all and end all, but it's an important component.

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