Simon Birmingham: Thanks guys, for being here in Singapore, it’s great to welcome you here, to be here for the ASEAN Summit, for related summits and particularly for the RCEP Dialogue the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which I’ve been engaged in trade ministers discussions at which we have leader level discussions happening from tomorrow. We really do look to RCEP as being an ambitious, comprehensive and ground-breaking trade agreement. It’s a really important trade agreement because it is something that will strike a symbol from the fastest growing economic region in the world, that we are serious and committed to trade liberalisation, to opening up our economies, to ensuring continued growth across the Indo-Pacific region.
Some stats on RCEP and its importance: RCEP as a regional economic partnership has the potential to include half of the world’s population, one third of the world’s GDP is of course part of 10 of Australia’s 15 largest trading economies, has the fastest growing economies in the world and will be, if successfully concluded, a trading bloc greater in terms of its significance than any other single trading agreement currently in place. So we are deeply committed to these discussions, we thank Singapore for their leadership as chair of ASEAN in terms of progressing the ASEAN discussions this year and I’m hopeful that when leaders meet tomorrow they will be able to agree on substantial progress having been made and they will be able to commit to seeing a final resolution of RCEP next year, enabling an agreement to construct in terms of trade potential.
It’s not just trade that’ll also be in important in terms of investment certainty across the region and in terms of the ongoing cooperation services sectors and other fast growing parts of the economy. In the end RCEP is around twice the size of the TPP in terms of the potential GDP coverage that it encompasses and that is a vast, significant, economic, trading bloc and partnership and we look forward to continuing to engage with each and every one of the 16 countries who are part of the RCEP discussions to get that successful conclusion, to get a comprehensive and ambitious trade agreement that can ensure the rapid economic growth that this region continues to be strong into the future.
Journalist: Minister, is it true that the ministers on RCEP met yesterday on how it is now unlikely there will be a conclusion this year?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, we did meet yesterday and into last night, and we have made substantial progress in a number of areas of the RCEP discussions. Of course leaders will pick up that conversation tomorrow in terms of the progress that has been made and the issues that are outstanding and in terms of the timeline, I would anticipate and hope that the leaders will be able to work towards a conclusion next year.
Journalist: And what’s the best you can expect in negotiations or discussions with China for this meeting to advance the bilateral agreement. Is there one that’s going to be signed before a federal election?
Simon Birmingham: Because we already have a free trade agreement with China, it’s a good ambitious free trade agreement that was negotiated by our Government, alongside agreements with Japan and South Korea that are in force, and other agreements, such as the TPP and various bilateral partnerships. So we will continue to work to ensure that we get and China gets the most out of our cooperative and strategic partnership and the partnership that’s underpinned by the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement. I was just in China last week, in Shanghai for the China International Import and Export Expo and saw some $15 billion worth of agreements signed between Australian and Chinese companies while I was there and I have no doubt that many more commercial arrangements with Australia during the international import expo demonstrate the economic partnership is alive and well, and indeed the success of Foreign Minister Payne’s meetings in Beijing towards the end of last the week demonstrates that strategic dialogue and engagement is also alive and well.
Journalist: Minister, my fault, jetlag, not China but Indonesia?
Simon Birmingham: In terms of Indonesia, of course we have concluded negotiations around the Australia-Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and we are working towards signing that. You referenced the China Agreement before; between conclusion of the negotiations and signing it took around seven months and for all the text to be scrubbed, translations to occur, for parties to settle. On timing, we are well within that type of window in terms of our discussion with Indonesia. I had a very warm and positive discussion with my Indonesian counterpart this morning and we are both committed to setting this agreement signed and I’m confident it will be.
Journalist: There was an MOU for that to be signed before Christmas, is that still the timeframe you’re working to?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t think there was ever any MOU that set a timeframe in that sense, but we are working towards getting it signed, and ensuring that all the i’s are dotted, the t’s are crossed in English and in Bahasa, and that we are actually in a position to get it signed.
Journalist: Is the embassy issue playing into timeframes?
Simon Birmingham: As the PM said, we don’t conflate those issues, we are committed to working through and ensuring to get the Agreement signed, and that Australia and Indonesia have successful partnerships across a range of areas, and my Indonesian counterpart and I have expressed again our commitment to work together, to get it signed, and to get all the work done to ensure that can happen.
Journalist: But the Prime Minister has said he’s not concerned about it being signed any time soon?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll get it signed as soon as we’re all ready to have it signed, and of course, as I’ve said, that requires the i’s being dotted, the t’s being crossed, in English and Bahasa, and everyone agreeing on the right timing and location for it to be signed.
Journalist: Minister, you’ve said that Australia doesn’t conflate these issues, but in your experience, have the Indonesians? Did your counterpart mention to you at any of your meetings, the Jerusalem Embassy?
Simon Birmingham: That’s not the impression that I get from my counterpart, we are working cooperatively to ensure that we get it signed. It’s a good agreement for both countries, and it’s going to provide more trade and market access opportunities for Australian businesses in Indonesia, and it’s going to provide more opportunities for Indonesian businesses in Australia, for investment and to grow their economy. We need their growth as a leading economy, we need the Indo-Pacific region, that’s why we want to see Indonesia’s continued economic growth beside Australia’s continued economic growth because that is good for the Indo-Pacific region and the world.
Journalist: Just to confirm, though, you said that the China process was a seven month period, but you believe that the Australia-Indonesia negotiations, are within that period now?
Simon Birmingham: Well within that period. It was only, of course, a few months ago that we concluded those negotiations. We are working through all the appropriate processes, and when we are ready, when everybody’s ready, it will be signed.
Journalist: Is it possible Labor could end up signing this agreement if they won the next election, given the time it will take to do the things you’re talking about and for Parliament to ratify it?
Simon Birmingham: I don’t think that’s at all likely and I am confident and committed to making sure that we win the next election.
Journalist: How do you stop other foreign leaders and your counterparts from treating Australia like a sort-of stop-gap government?
Simon Birmingham: I see nothing but respect and positive engagement from all of my counterparts with whom I engage. We engage, of course, with each minister, with each leader, on the basis of the strong relationships that Australia has and indeed in many areas of foreign policy, trade policy, we see strong bipartisanship. I urged the Labor Party, who have had some internal differences in relation to trade policy of late, to maintain that bipartisanship that has allowed us to be able to strike secure deals with China, with South Korea, with Japan, the TPP, and with Indonesia in the future.
Journalist: Minister, you say you’re in no rush to sign the trade agreement, but Indonesia is going to an election next April and we know that Prabowo, the opposition leader, is going very hard on national issues such as imports at the moment. Are you concerned that the agreement needs to be signed before the election in April?
Simon Birmingham: We want to see it signed, Indonesia wants to see it signed, I’m confident that we will see it signed before then, in an environment where both countries recognise the substantial economic benefits that flow to each country. Indonesia has real benefits that they will accrue, in terms of access to Australia’s market, but also investment opportunities, the opportunities for them to grow and expand different industry sectors, such as bringing in more breeding cattle that will allow them to grow their own cattle industry whilst we also improve and increase our export opportunities into the market. There are practical, win-win benefits from this agreement, both sides recognise that, that’s why both sides want to see it signed.
Journalist: Minister, can you clarify what the sticking points are in the RCEP Agreement?
Simon Birmingham: Look, in terms of RCEP, it is, as I said, an enormous trade agreement, in terms of the scale of economies, nations, populations, and therefore issues to be resolved and worked through. Sixteen different countries, all at the table at the same time, India, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, and the ten ASEAN nations, all of us working through a number of different, complex issues. We of course have to resolve the different goods and services offers, and investment offers between each nation at a bilateral level as well as then the coordinated text in key areas. But we are seeing good progress, it will take a little bit longer to ensure that we get the type of substantial, meaningful, commercial market access decisions that Australia expects in a free trade agreement.
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