David Speers: Let’s go live now to the Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, who’s joining us from that trade expo in Shanghai where it’s a lot of activity behind you, Minister, as we can see, so thank you very much for giving us some time. You were there, we saw, yesterday for the President Xi Jinping’s speech. Did you take from that a message that China and the Chinese President is now a greater friend of free trade than perhaps the US President?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, thanks so much for having us on, and yes it is an amazing event in terms of the scale here at the China International Import Expo, and yesterday I attended the opening ceremony at which President Xi Jinping did speak, and in doing so, the President committed very firmly to working within the rules-based multilateral system of trade, to continuing to open up the Chinese economy, and Australia welcomes that. We also welcome the fact that he highlighted some focus areas such as in education and healthcare for further opening up of the economy, which provide great opportunities for Australian services export companies, as well as the fact that he indicated that there could be improvements in some of those global trading rules, and that China would strengthen its intellectual property protections, and particularly the penalties that apply for those who breach them.
So, we’ve seen some positive signs in terms of China addressing I hope some of the valid concerns the United States has raised over recent times, and I hope that that, coupled with the increasing levels of dialogue we’re now seeing between China and the US, can head off the type of escalating trade war we’ve seen, can prevent further increases to tariffs that President Trump had foreshadowed, and hopefully can see a rolling back of some of that protectionist sentiment.
David Speers: Well, that will be encouraging to many to hear that China’s going to get serious about some of these issues around intellectual property theft, in particular. Does your visit there, your meeting with the Commerce Minister and the Foreign Minister’s meeting later this week, signal to you that Australia is now out of the deep freeze as far as China is concerned?
Simon Birmingham: Australia has a good relationship with China, you know we are of course the greatest trading partner — or China is our greatest trading partner, and we are one of the largest trading partners for China with the rest of the world, around 6th or 7th depending on how you measure it, so we are significant trading partners in a two way exchange, of goods, of services, of investment, of people, and this week is a very positive week. I’m joined here by more than 200 Australian companies who are exhibiting a whole range of brands. I’m currently in the food and agriculture pavilion where Australia has the single largest presence of any country in terms of our companies that are here.
It’s a very positive environment — I’ve met and had discussions with Commerce Minister Zhong, with a range of different leaders of Chinese industry and Government, and they have all been very positive discussions about how we can cooperate in global engagement, how we can take our investment and trading relationship to even higher levels, and of course that will now be followed up by Marise Payne’s visit to Beijing on Thursday for the Annual Strategic Dialogue, and that is very welcome that is occurring off the back of such positivity here in Shanghai.
David Speers: Australia Week in China was abandoned this year. Will it be coming back next year? Have things improved to that degree that this Australia Week Trade Fair, very important for Australian firms trying to promote themselves in China, will that go ahead again?
Simon Birmingham: Well Australia Week in China had been held in 2014, in 2016, and this year of course we’ve got this vast Australian presence here at this priority of President Xi’s in the Import Expo, so we’ve long considered that this is essentially our Australia week in China presence this year, and the scale of Australian participation demonstrates that. And now we will have a look at what our opportunities are for the future in terms of whether it’s Australia week in China, whether it’s a different type of format that piggybacks off of this event, off of the annual AFL match that’s now going to be committed over the next few years, or a series of different trading missions. We’ve got to make sure that whatever it is we do, it’s not just about the domestic political impact or the domestic media coverage back home, it’s about ensuring that the businesses who are participating get the best commercial bang for their buck.
And, you know, here at this Import Expo there are 160,000 registered buyers from across China coming and visiting, seeking and talking to Australian businesses about newer opportunities for them to get goods and services into China. That’s a vast number — and hundreds of thousands of additional visitors who could be unknown customers and potential customers too.
David Speers: Now let me ask you about the Belt and Road Initiative. The Prime Minister, we just played that clip earlier, said the Victorian Government knows full well the Federal Government’s policies on the Belt and Road Initiative. What is, can you explain to us, the Federal Government’s position on the Belt and Road Initiative?
Simon Birmingham: The Federal Government’s position is as it has always been, we welcome investment by other nations in terms of development of infrastructure across our region, but we do expect that investment must be something that is sustainable for the recipient nations, must respect the sovereignty of those nations, ought to be done in a way that truly builds their capability and their economic sustainability into the future. Now that’s been our position on Belt and Road all along, and the Federal Government has various agreements with China, between Australia and China including ones that cover infrastructure cooperation, and we encourage and welcome Australian companies or those representing Australian companies, to look at opportunities where they can engage. But we remind everyone whether it’s a state government, or a company, that they ought to be mindful of those terms under which we welcome and encourage that investment, those terms of sustainability and respect for sovereignty.
David Speers: So, I just want to be clear on this though, Australia is not a formal partner of the Belt and Road Initiative. Has Victoria done the wrong thing here?
Simon Birmingham: Well it really is for Victoria to explain precisely what’s in their agreement. Ultimately as I say we encourage engagement by Australian companies, by those representing Australian companies, to see opportunities where they are. But we do ask them to be mindful of the fact that if they’re engaging in pursuing those opportunities, it ought to be consistent with our clearly stated foreign policy priorities. They’re well known to China, as I said we welcome cooperative investment in the region to develop the economies of other countries. You know the economic growth of China has been good for China, good for Australia and also good for many other countries, but where we are seeing that direct investment in infrastructure, loan arrangements to other nations, they need to be sustainable, they need to respect the sovereignty of those countries and whether it’s a state government or a business who is looking to help or play a role alongside that, they need to make sure that they are mindful of those positions too.
David Speers: So if the Prime Minister’s critical, as he is, of Victoria for not consulting with the Commonwealth, the Federal Government, about this, what would the Federal Government have told Victoria? That it should not sign this MOU?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, we don’t know what exactly is in the MoU, and it’s up to Victoria of course to explain that, but that is the challenge. I can’t say whether or not Victoria should have signed it. We’re not against engagement or cooperation under the terms that I’ve outlined, but as for the content of it, that’s a matter for Victoria to have to explain.
David Speers: Alright, Simon Birmingham, Trade Minister, thank you very much for joining us and bearing with us with the delay there. From that busy trade expo in Shanghai, appreciate your time, thanks so much for that.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you David.
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