Trade Minister Andrew Robb has described free trade talks with China as his “highest priority” and denied the Abbott government was trying to rush through an agreement.
Speaking to reporters in Shanghai on Wednesday, Mr Robb said he had cabinet go-ahead to seal free-trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea, and would not compromise on terms.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has set an ambitious deadline of just 12 months to clinch a free-trade agreement with China.
The talks have stalled frequently since starting in April 2005, mainly over agricultural disagreements and China's unhappiness with the level of Foreign Investment Review Board scrutiny on its investments.
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Bali earlier this month, Mr Abbott said he would be willing to settle for “whatever we can get” to cut a trade deal, drawing criticism that he had handed bargaining power to the Chinese.
But Mr Robb said the government's position had not been compromised by a desire to complete negotiations swiftly.
“It's not the timing that's the issue, it's trying to meet one another halfway,” he said.
“I don't think there's a lot of distance between us. It's not as though there are dozens of things we've got to resolve.”
The first cabinet minister of the Abbott government to visit China, Mr Robb invoked the Howard era, when the economic relationship was used as the cornerstone of the bilateral relationship.
“Economic diplomacy is a very important part of our agenda,” Mr Robb said, when asked whether he considered it appropriate for Australia to press China on human rights concerns. “The best way we can influence any country is to engage commercially with them. You then engage in other ways.”
He said the Howard government had had a good record of raising human-rights issues with China at appropriate forums.
Mr Robb said he had met with He Wenbo, president of Baosteel, one of the world's largest consumers of iron ore.
“He did confirm our view that the mining boom is not dead,” Mr Robb said, adding Mr He was “very pleased” with the Coalition's incipient removal of mining and carbon taxes.
On Thursday, Mr Robb will open the Monash University and Southeast University Joint Graduate School and Joint Research Institute in Suzhou, near Shanghai.
He will return to China early next month for a round of formal talks on the free trade agreement, before visiting South Korea and Japan for further negotiations.