Australia sets conditions for China joining Pacific pact

Sydney (AFP) –


China must end a freeze on contacts with senior Australian politicians if it hopes to join a trans-Pacific trade pact, Canberra's trade minister said Wednesday, setting de facto preconditions for accession.

Dan Tehan linked China's bid to join an 11-nation trading alliance with steps to improve bilateral relations that are at their lowest ebb in decades.

China formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) last week, and is lobbying to gain the consensus support of members including Australia.

This comes after a war of words between the two countries, a string of sanctions on Australian goods and a months-long freeze on senior-level government contacts.

"When I became trade minister, I wrote to my Chinese counterpart in January setting out how we can work more closely together. I am still waiting for a reply," Tehan said in a Monday speech.

"One of the most important things about negotiating the accession process of any country into the CPTPP is that you have to be able to sit down at ministerial level, look your economic partner in the eye, and talk about that accession process."

Tehan also indicated China would have to resolve disputes at the World Trade Organization (WTO) stemming from a slew of politically driven sanctions on Australian imports.

"All parties will want to be confident that any new member will meet, implement and adhere to the high standards of the agreement as well as to their WTO commitments and their existing trade agreements," he said.

"It's in everyone's interests that everyone plays by the rules."

- 'Economic coercion' -

Australia this month asked the WTO to rule against China's imposition of crippling tariffs on Australian wine exports, after initial consultations failed to resolve the dispute.

Wine sales by Australia to China plummeted from over Aus$1 billion ($840 million) to a virtual trickle after Beijing imposed the tariffs, according to industry figures.

Australia is also challenging Chinese tariffs on barley at the WTO and has objected to sanctions on a string of other goods, which Canberra describes as "economic coercion."

The measures are widely seen in Australia as punishment for pushing back against Beijing's operations to impose influence in Australia, rejecting Chinese investment in sensitive areas and publicly calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the Chinese embassy in Australia this month lobbied Canberra to join the CPTPP, telling an Australian parliamentary inquiry that China's accession "would benefit all CPTPP members and the rest of the world."

Signed by 11 Asia-Pacific countries in 2018, the partnership is the region's biggest free-trade pact and accounts for around 13.5 percent of the global economy.