Australian exports to China still face hurdles after hyped trade deal

Tue Nov 18, 2014 6:58am EST
 
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By Jane Wardell

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A trade deal signed with great fanfare between China and Australia has been touted as a major step towards Australia shifting its economy from a "mining boom" to a "dining boom," but the reality is likely to be more sobering.

Australia is looking to replace its reliance on exports of minerals such as coal and iron ore as mining investment wanes and demand begins to dwindle. The government would prefer to expand its food and agricultural exports to capitalize on a rapidly growing Asian middle class.

It has high hopes for the proposal for a free trade agreement (FTA) signed on Monday by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Chinese President Xi, but the more likely winner from the deal is the services sector.

The deal is designed to open up Chinese markets to Australian farm exporters and the services sector, while easing curbs on Chinese investment in Australia. China is already Australia's top trading partner, with two-way trade of around A$150 billion ($130 billion) in 2013.

Several major agricultural foodstuffs, including sugar, rice and cotton, are currently excluded from the FTA, and Australia's frequent severe droughts impose a natural production ceiling on those sectors that are part of the pact.

Experts are waiting for the full text of the pact, which Australia called the best ever between Beijing and a Western country, warning the devil may yet be in the detail.

"Labor is deeply concerned that key export sectors like sugar have been told to expect nothing from the deal," said opposition Labor Party leader Penny Wong. "Mr Abbott has talked about a two-step FTA. The fact is Australia can't afford a second-rate FTA with China."

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China's President Xi Jinping (L) and Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott watch as free trade deals are signed during a signing ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra November 17, 2014. REUTERS/David Gray