KIERAN GILBERT: Of course the Free Trade Agreement with China is pretty much done and dusted. I spoke to the Trade Minister at the weekend, at the APEC summit and he had some interesting views not just on the agreement which you can get a sense from him it’s pretty much a fait accompli, but views on the rise of China and how Australia and the rest of the world needs to be realistic about with the economic rise comes a broader increase in their power as well.

ANDREW ROBB: We are an enthusiast member of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the TPP. 12 countries in the region trying to get a more seamless level of trade amongst one another but we see that as ultimately becoming one of the building blocks for an Asia-Pacific wide agreement so in the end all of these other agreements that are taking place will all come together, like bricks in a wall to create an Asia-Pacific one, which is what the Chinese are advocating, and we have been very enthusiastic about what can be done, what should be done to facilitate that over the next 10 or 15 years.

KIERAN GILBERT: Are the Americans as enthusiastic as we are or are they a bit reticent about having a China led push on the trade front?

ANDREW ROBB: Well there is always a bit of two bulls in one paddock on some of these things, a lot of things actually, but at the end of the day the Americans understand they want to get the TPP away and they have also have been strong supporters of ultimately seeing an Asia-Pacific free trade agreement so I don’t think their objectives in any way conflict with the Chinese.

KIERAN GILBERT: What’s your feeling on how the Chinese are seeing our position on their Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, because again the Americans aren’t convinced on that, they see that as a rival to their US led World Bank. We haven’t signed up yet, have you picked up on any concern from the Chinese on that, is it feeding into the free trade negotiations at all?           

ANDREW ROBB: No it hasn’t. It hasn’t at all. In fact I’ve had discussions right up to vice-premier level and openly discussed the bank and they have said and made the point again and again that we’ve got lots of time, they are very keen to engage on the government’s requirements, and I have responded by saying we are keen, we are keen to join if the governments issues are dealt with in the world’s best practiced way, we will be there quickly and enthusiastically.

KIERAN GILBERT:It is hard to divide the economic and trade space obviously with the increase in the political and strategic clout when you are talking about China, and I guess that adds to complexity of trying to negotiate this with the US because for years they’ve had their IMF and the World Bank based in Washington, they had strategic advantages for having that and now we see China replicate a parallel architecture, I guess, on the economic front. 

ANDREW ROBB: Well the way I look at it, let’s look at the reality. The reality is that China is a huge economy, emerging or reinstating its traditional role in the world. Bear in mind over the past 20 centuries the two top countries in the world Number 1 and 2 is China and India for 18 of the last 20 centuries. So in many ways you are starting to see the re-emergence of both those big countries. That’s the reality. We’ve got to live with the reality and we’ve got to accommodate new institutions like the Asia Bank. We’ve got to accommodate the new reality and with that does come power and authority, it is somewhat competitive with other areas of power and authority around the world but that’s the reality, but we can if we work together and a lot of our work with the Free Trade Agreement has been about relationship building, building trust so that when there are issues we can deal with them in a common sense way, understanding one another’s points of view, having built the relationships and trust that will enable close relationships.

KIERAN GILBERT: Do you think some of the analysis in Australia misses the point in the sense that the Chinese – in your view of what you’re saying to me today – and you’ve expressed it many times before, their pragmatic aren’t they – when it comes to the end result?

ANDREW ROBB:

Well in the end they’re like the rest of us – they’ve got political imperatives. They’ve taken 500 million people out of poverty. They’ve still got 700 million small farmers all over China. It’s a political imperative that they keep finding jobs; developing their economy. I see the same pressures – they’ve got pressures on them of a profound nature in order to maintain social order and they’ve got to keep delivering jobs and opportunities. And that’s why they’re engaging in all these agreements – in APEC. They need top for their own self-interest to develop their economy and engage with other economies. It’s just – it’s human nature. It is realpolitik and it’s inevitable; and we’ve got to accept that and make the most of it. We can gain a lot from their progress.

KIERAN GILBERT: A couple of questions to finish – on the free trade agreement – are you happy where things are at the moment? It’s obviously crunch time at the moment; are you hoping for a signature at the end of the G20 I guess; or by the time President Xi is in Canberra. Are you happy with where things are at?

ANDREW ROBB: I am pleased. I’d like to have it locked away obviously. I think we will, shortly, I really do. But we’ve got a couple of hurdles to jump yet. But it has got the potential of being a remarkably timely piece of work because China is moving from an industrial infrastructure based economy to a services-based. It’s the only way with massive growth of urbanisation. The only way they get jobs for all those former farmers is through the services industry. That’s our sweet spot – we’re an eighty per cent services economy; we’re knowledge-based. This whole agreement – the new emphasis – it’ll look after agriculture; it will look to resources; but the big growth area is the emphasis that we’re seeing – within the document – on access for services. Hundreds of services from Australia.

KIERAN GILBERT: And finally, you’ve heard some criticisms from the Opposition. Are you worried that you might face a bit of a campaign from some – if there is some labour mobility factor in this free trade agreement? Or I guess even if there is enhanced investment protocols. Are you worried that you political opponents might question that?

KIERAN GILBERT: Well if they just play a – you know – a spoiling role without looking at the national interest; it will play into our hands frankly. We’ve heard nothing but endless negativity on just about every issue that’s been raised by us; except for the engagement with the Middle East. Just about everything else has been a blanket no. If they adopt that same attitude towards this China Free Trade Agreement, they will be the ones that suffer. This is fundamentally in the national interest. It’s an excellent agreement. If we can finalise one or two key points, we’re really going to set Australia up for the decades ahead.

KIERAN GILBERT:And it won’t undermine the employment prospects? I guess that’s the thing for Australia.

ANDREW ROBB: The whole point about the free trade agreement is to create jobs. If we don’t have a living document which moves with the changing nature of China, then we will be left behind. We won’t have the opportunities. But if we do move with China’s change – if we help them with their growth in services, it’ll create endless opportunities for Australia. High value jobs, high paid jobs; and knowledge-based opportunities. That is where we are so well placed as a country to contribute. We can help China get those 700 million other people out of poverty and get them into a quality of life that we all enjoy.

KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Robb, thanks for your time.

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