China Pushing Trade Deal With Australia

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- China is keen to strike a free trade pact with Australia soon and opposes any return to protectionism by countries in response to the global economic crisis, China's vice president said Monday.

Xi Jinping, who is likely to become China's leader in 2012 when President Hu Jintao is expected to step down, is on the final leg of a four-nation tour that took him to Bangladesh, Laos and New Zealand.

His visit to Australia has focused on its burgeoning exports of iron ore, coal and natural gas that feed the voracious appetite of Chinese manufacturing.

Xi told government and business leaders at a lunch at Parliament House that Australia and its biggest export customer, China, had strategic interests in completing bilateral free trade talks, which began in 2005 and will enter a 15th round in Beijing this month.

"A comprehensive, balanced, high quality and mutually beneficial free trade agreement been Australia and China serves the fundamental and long-term interests of our two countries," Xi said. "We hope that the two sides will ... reach a mutually acceptable agreement at an early date."

Xi said China and Australia also had to take "concrete actions" to oppose trade and investment protectionism in the aftermath of the global recession.

"Given the continuing impact of the international financial crisis, it remains a daunting task to promote the comprehensive recovery and sustainable development of the world economy," Xi said.

China has been quick to fill a slump in investment in the Australian resource sector since the global downturn. But Australia is cautious about allowing Beijing-controlled companies to buy the mines that are commanding record prices for resources because of Chinese demand.

Beijing has also long complained to Canberra about the escalating prices Chinese manufacturers are being charged for Australian raw materials during the mining boom. Canberra refuses to intervene in free market forces driving up prices for commodities such as iron ore and coal.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd plans to introduce a tax on mineral profits that is expected to raise an extra 9 billion Australian dollars ($8 billion) a year from mining companies. Critics argue the move would deter investment and kill the mining boom.

During Xi's visit on Monday, 10 agreements were signed, most related to the resources and energy sectors.

Xi is the most senior Chinese official to visit Australia since the bilateral relationship was tested by an Australian mining executive's conviction and sentencing in March to 10 years' imprisonment for industrial espionage.

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