Australia’s newly elected conservative government aims to wrap up free trade agreements with South Korea, Japan and China within a year. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop signaled a change in foreign policy direction that will see a fresh focus put on the Asia Pacific region and stronger links between diplomacy, trade and investment in an interview with Nikkei in Singapore on Thursday.
Julie Bishop said “The government views the completion of an FTA with South Korea as a priority and then [with] Japan and China in that order,” said Bishop, who will be visiting all three countries this month. “I hope we would be able to achieve something with South Korea by the end of this year, [but] it may go into next year. We are hoping to conclude all three [pacts] within the first 12 months of our government.”
Bishop, Australia’s first female foreign minister and the only woman in the cabinet formed by the Liberal/National coalition which swept to victory in elections last month, sounded a more cautious note on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations which now encompass Japan, Vietnam, Peru, Chile and seven other nations.
“What’s interesting about the TPP is that a number of members already have free trade agreements with each other, so it’s a question of putting all of that on the table and seeing where the benefit lies,” she said.
“We will be aligning our foreign policy and trade and interests,” said Bishop, the long-time deputy leader of Liberal Party, the senior partner in the two-party coalition. “We will be seeking to project our reputation and protect our reputation as a successful market economy. In that sense we will be pursuing free trade agreements and will be pursuing a network of bilateral and regional free trade agreements beyond what we currently have.”
Australia has existing FTAs with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and three of its individual members, as well as with the U.S., New Zealand and Chile.
“We will be focusing our efforts very much on the Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific,” Bishop said. “That is where our foreign policy assets will be focused – whether it will be military, defense, economic, trade, diplomacy [or] aid.”
The previous Labor government spread its diplomatic efforts more thinly, opening or maintaining embassies in countries such as Ethiopia and Hungary with which Australia has few links, in an ultimately successful drive to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Bishop noted that Asia is now providing more than half of the world’s economic growth and said that Australia is in an “exquisite position to take advantage of that growth.”
Bishop will visit Japan October 15-16 before heading to South Korea for two days, followed by two and a half days each in Hong Kong and Beijing. The trip will cap a hectic month of overseas travel which has seen her chair the U.N. Security Council in New York, visit Jakarta with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and make whistle-stop trips to New Zealand and Singapore where she met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Talks over the bilateral free trade pacts have already dragged on for several years in each case. Bishop has told negotiators to resolve a sticking point in the South Korea talks over a provision for investor-state dispute settlements, which allow companies to take foreign governments to court over substantial policy changes which may affect their businesses. The previous government had baulked at including the provision in the South Korea pact out of fear of being taken to court by large tobacco companies after Australia became the first country in the world to remove branding from cigarette packs.
“That was a mistake,” Bishop said about the dispute provision, signalling a flexibility that could be crucial to resolving similar obstacles in talks with China and Japan.
Bishop shied away from discussing maritime disputes between China and its neighbors over control of areas of the East and South China seas except to say the disputes should be resolved in an “international rules-based” manner.
A version of this story was originally published at nikkei.com, 4 October, 2013