Australia, China resume trade talks after rows

SYDNEY: Australia on Wednesday resumed free-trade talks with China after a 14-month gap, sweeping aside a brief plunge in ties to focus on a booming partnership tipped to deliver decades of growth.

Trade Minister Simon Crean said Australia's vast resources sector was the subject of intense interest from China, but that Canberra was also keen to gain greater access to the giant Asian country's market.

"We need a new framework that reflects that interest, but a framework that (also) reflects the importance of investment as a two-way street," Crean said.

"Because Australia too has significant interest in getting greater investment into the Chinese economy."

With the three-day talks the two countries appear to have buried disputes which flared last year over the arrest of Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu in China and a visit to Australia by exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

Hu and three Chinese Rio employees are awaiting trial in Shanghai over alleged bribery and commercial espionage during difficult talks to set a contract price for iron ore, Australia's biggest export to China.

Crean said the talks in Canberra would be difficult "but we are determined to try and see them through". He added that he didn't believe Hu's arrest had disrupted the trading relationship, which has gone from strength to strength.

Industrialising China's voracious appetite for iron ore and coal has made it Australia's biggest trading partner with deals worth 76 billion dollars (68 billion US) over the year to June, despite the global downturn.

The trade helped Australia ride out the slowdown as the only advanced economy not to enter recession, while central bank officials believe the renewed mining boom could run as long as 20 years.

But Crean emphasised that the Australia-China trade relationship ran deeper than resources, and negotiating an agreement was key to capitalising on China's shift from an exporting to consumer-driven economy.

Urban development, logistics, infrastructure, retailing and financial services are "all important spaces in which Australia can play", Crean said.

"The services and investment front by far opens up the biggest opportunities," he added.

"If we can get a saner and more relevant identification of those circumstances, then I think we'll be able to deal with the sensitive issues in a mature way."

The talks are now in their 14th round after the last session in Beijing in December 2008 stumbled on technical issues.

Buoyed by its strong recovery, Australia is also pushing for free-trade agreements with Japan and South Korea and is studying a further deal with India.

Australia's free-trade deal with the 10-nation ASEAN came into force last month and it will start negotiating a trans-Pacific pact with the United States, New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, Brunei, Peru and Vietnam in March.