In an interview, Senator Birmingham reinforced Senator Payne’s position ahead of the Shanghai International Export Expo, the key annual event for doing business with China – Australia’s largest trading partner.
“Australia understands that we will never agree with China or every country on absolutely everything,” he said.
“We have to be Australians, to speak to our values, interests and positions. Australia has long spoken on matters of human rights and people would expect us to continue to do so.”
Balancing the government’s concerns with efforts to keep Beijing onside economically, Senator Birmingham said Australia also respected the gains China had made over recent decades and wanted to be “a partner” for securing “continuing advancement for the benefit of the Chinese people”.
The rift comes amid fears China’s economy is slowing faster than anticipated. A key measure of manufacturing fell by more than expected on Thursday, while non-manufacturing fell to a three-year low despite a lift in construction driven by government stimulus.
The economic and diplomatic headwinds have pushed the Morrison government to diversify Australia’s trading interests in the region as it looks to lock down the Regional and Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a 16-country pan-Asian trade agreement covering 3.5 billion people.
Senator Birmingham will also fly to Thailand to meet with south-east Asian negotiators over the weekend. “RCEP is a trade agreement of a scale not seen before,” he said.
“There has been enormous progress that puts us tantalisingly close to finalising the text of the agreement but there are still hurdles to overcome in terms of the market access exchange between different countries,” he said.
The trade minister had set a deadline of this year for the agreement to be finalised. But Indian negotiators – pressured for delays by the country’s powerful farming lobbies – have now made that prospect unlikely.
The negotiations took on extra importance on Thursday after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was cancelled following escalating protests over inequality in Chile. The summit was scheduled to begin in mid-November, but has now been postponed until Malaysia hosts the forum in 2020.
US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, were due to meet in Santiago, Chile to sign an interim trade deal that would have formalised a ceasefire in the $US300 billion trade war that has roiled markets and investor confidence for the past two years.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra