Trade minister clears the air after China snub claims

·3-min read

Australia is hitting back at claims it snubbed China's bid to join a trans-Pacific trade agreement.

The South China Morning Post is reporting Beijing asked for a clear and preferably public commitment to support its bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and block Taiwan from joining the pact.

The Hong Kong-based news outlet claimed Australia was not expected to endorse China or Taiwan's ascension to the partnership and cited a source as saying the minister told Beijing the government didn't support Taiwanese membership.

The source added Australia didn't oppose Chinese membership but couldn't support it while trade sanctions were in place, given the standards of the Pacific pact.

But Trade Minister Don Farrell said he responded to the agenda item raised in his meeting with counterpart Wang Wentao in Beijing that it remained Australia's longstanding position to deal with Britain joining the pact first.

Senator Farrell also conveyed any ascension would need to be stamped by all members and did not discuss Taiwan.

He said a nation wanting to join the agreement needed to have a track record of complying with trade agreements and Australia would work with any country wanting to join the pact on a consensus basis with partners.

The Chinese ambassador to Australia has called for a bilateral working group to work on Beijing's ascension.

Xiao Qian said the Pacific pact's viability would be threatened without including the second-largest global economy.

Concerns have been raised about China's adherence to international trading laws and norms, especially after it slapped punitive tariffs on Australian products which the government is still working to unwind.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said the government was working hard to restore the trading relationship but needed to balance it against competing strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific as China builds up its military at record pace.

Mr Marles said the nation needed to face inconvenient truths, that China remained Australia's most significant trading partner as well as a source of significant anxiety in the region.

He said the path to a stable relationship was on course but it was a complex and difficult task.

"But at the end of the day, we value a productive relationship with China," he said in Canberra on Tuesday.

His comments follow a speech at a defence summit on Monday night, where he said the relationship shouldn't be viewed through "simplistic platitudes".

He said there were significant human rights abuses in China but the nation had also played a crucial role in the "single biggest alleviation of poverty in human history".

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said it was clear the global order needed to reckon with authoritarian nations, saying "the age of autocrats is not behind us".

Mr Dutton said the problem with calling out China's opaque military build-up was that it was underpinned by the assumption Beijing was interested in transparency.

He said applying democratic standards to autocratic regimes risked denying their true intent and  Australia needed to accelerate its defence capabilities as diplomacy wouldn't always work against such states.