SHANGHAI – Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hailed trade ties with China but skirted sensitive political issues Thursday, on the first day of an official visit to his country’s key trade partner.
In a speech to business leaders in the financial hub of Shanghai, Turnbull praised a bilateral free trade agreement signed last year as offering important new opportunities for Australian exporters.
China absorbs about one-third of Australia’s exports, but China’s slowing demand for iron ore, coal and other resources has taken a major toll on Australia’s economy. Two-way trade between them totalled 150 billion Australian dollars ($115 billion) in the last financial year, down 6.3 per cent.
While that dealt a massive shock to Australian trade, the country is now “most of the way through” the crisis and looking for new opportunities in China’s efforts to stimulate personal consumption among its citizens, Turnbull said.
“It is with these objectives in mind that we embrace all of the extraordinary opportunities presented by China’s own economic transition toward a more consumption-driven economy,” Turnbull said, according to a copy of the speech provided by his office.
The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement known as ChAFTA, will eventually eliminate tariffs on almost all of Australian products sold to China. Turnbull singled out exporters of beef and dairy products, cherries, crayfish and wine as particular beneficiaries.
The pact will also ease employment terms for Australian service providers, including lawyers, educators, and financial professionals, while encouraging investments in Australia by major Chinese firms such as Baosteel, Bright Foods and property developer Greenland Group, he said.
China is also Australia’s most important tourism market with more than 1 million visitors last year.
Australia will further smooth the way for its firms to enter the Chinese market with the establishment of a “landing pad” in Shanghai that will provide physical space for Australian entrepreneurs and access to networks and expertise, said Turnbull, who is leading a large delegation of government officials and about 1,000 business leaders.
Turnbull made no mention in his speech of concerns that Australia, a close-U.S. ally, has about Chinese activities in the highly disputed South China Sea, where Washington and others have accused Beijing of creating political instability by building man-made islands. Turnbull is expected to touch on political issues with Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing later Thursday and again with President Xi Jinping on Friday.
China responded harshly to critical comments on the South China Sea contained in Australia’s recent Defence White Paper, highlighting Canberra’s difficult task of striking a balance in its relationships with China and the U.S.
“These pose an acute policy dilemma for Australians, because while they know that their economic future depends on a strong relationship with China, they still believe that their security depends on their long-standing alliance with the U.S.,” Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, said in an editorial published in China’s official English-language Global Times newspaper on Thursday.
“Like many others in Asia, Turnbull wants to avoid escalating rivalry and instead see a peaceful transition to a new stable order in Asia in which both the U.S. ad China play important leadership roles,” White wrote, adding that questioned whether Turnbull knew how to achieve that hope.