“Importantly, it is not just our election that has happened, which means we are now entering a crucial stage for the RCEP to substantially conclude it negotiations this year,” he said in an interview before flying to this weekend’s gathering of G20 trade ministers in Japan, which key RCEP members will attend.
“There is enough certainty in the governance of many of the key players to hopefully make the decisions necessary to make this agreement possible.”
The Coalition wants urgent action as a buttress against any fallout from the US-China trade conflict, which it’s been estimated could wipe $36 billion from the local economy along with tens of thousands of jobs.
“We can’t and won’t allow [trade] co-operation to stall because of disputes between the two major players,” Senator Birmingham said.
The government sees India’s new Trade Minister, Piyush Goyal, regarded as close to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as having enough clout to deliver a deal that would join India and China in a free-trade agreement with Australia for the first time.
Negotiations with the RCEP – the 10 ASEAN member states: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand – have been ongoing since 2012.
The members account for 3.5 billion people and produce $33 trillion a year in gross domestic product. An agreement would eclipse the TPP-11 in size after the US withdrew in 2017.
Part of the deal would give India, Thailand, Vietnam and China greater access to markets in Australia for their IT and service workers in exchange for Australian access to their agriculture and dairy markets, delivering a multibillion-dollar boost for the struggling farming sector while putting some local service jobs under threat.
The deal would also usher in a new level of technological co-operation between the countries despite ongoing strain between China and Australia over the decision to block Chinese giant Huawei from building Australia’s 5G network due to national security concerns.
Australian Treasury deputy secretary Meghan Quinn warned last month that a “war of technology” was looming between the east and west, as experts encourage Australian, European and US firms to build up their technological capability to compete with China or risk being left behind.
Senator Birmingham said there needed to be a balance between security and maximising co-operation.
“If we look at the way which we effectively managed old systems of global postal services or global aviation services, they set examples of ways in which we can co-operate around the world and ensure the seamless transfer of goods and people and in the modern economy,” he said.
“We want to ensure that those flows can be as free as possible, while preserving safeguards to maintain confidence of individuals and nations around their own security and sovereignty. “
Senator Birmingham said he had been briefed on reports that US President Donald Trump had considered slapping tariffs on aluminium last week in violation of a deal reached between the former Turnbull government and the Trump administration to exempt Australia.
He said he would take it up with his US counterparts.
“They are giving every indication of wanting to work with us pretty closely on that,” he said. “We are making sure that the understanding that was reached last year is being applied in practice as well as in theory.”
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.