Australia says pleased with progress on China free trade pact

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Australia said on Saturday that it was pleased with progress on a long-planned free trade agreement with China and that it would be happy to conclude it by next week when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits.

Xi will attend the G20 summit in Brisbane next week and then make a formal state visit.

"I understand that our negotiators are very pleased with the progress," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Beijing.

"If the agreement can be concluded by the time of the G20, we would be delighted, but we are not pursuing an agreement for the sake of an agreement. It has to be in our national interest and in the interest of Australian businesses and exporters and the same with China."

China is Australia's largest trading partner, with two-way trade of around US$150 billion (S$194 billion) in 2013. The two countries are in the final stages of reaching a free trade agreement that Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants signed by the end of the year, after nearly 10 years of negotiations.

Trade talks have been hampered by Beijing's concerns over opening its markets to Australian food and its worries about Australia's tough approval process for foreign investment by China's state-owned enterprises.

Canberra wants China to give Australian businesses access to key industries in which foreign investment is currently restricted.

Last month, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey said Australian coal would be exempt from controversial new import tariffs imposed by China when the two countries sign the free trade pact.

Countries attending the Apec summit are seizing the opportunity to discuss both bilateral and multilateral free trade, including the China-championed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, backed chiefly by the US.

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