by Xu Haijing, Jeremy Zhao
CANBERRA, March 11 (Xinhua) -- Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced on Monday that during his visit to China early next month, he will discuss the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between China and Australia as well as the upcoming Australian Week to be held in China, media reported Tuesday.
Aside from China, Abbott will also visit Japan and South Korea.
When delivering his Government Work Report to the National People's Congress in Beijing, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China will accelerate negotiations for an FTA with Australia.
Trade Minister Andrew Robb said Premier Li's comments were " most encouraging and highly welcomed."
"The world is acutely aware of the opportunities presented by China. So we need to do all we can to lock in our trading assessment relationship if we are to protect and grow our access to China in the years and the decades ahead," Robb said.
The Australian media have also lauded the Chinese leader's message, saying that the FTA would further boost the two countries' business relations.
Mainstream newspaper, The Australian, commented that a deal with China, Australia's biggest trading partner, would be "a boon for the nation's agricultural exports, such as beef and dairy."
The FTA is also expected to open the lucrative Chinese market to Australia's financial services, legal services, education and telecommunications, Robb said.
It is a shared view in Australia that China's urbanization and industrialization have partly fueled Australia's economic growth in the last decade and helped Australia dodge the financial crisis that swept the whole Western economies.
Analysts said that as the mining boom begins to wane and the traditional manufacturing sector, especially the automobile industry, has been hobbled by high human costs and Australian dollar, it is time for Australian leaders to find new opportunities for Australia's economic growth in the coming decade.
For many years, New Zealand's economy was relatively weak compared with Australia. But things changed gradually in recent years, especially after New Zealand signed an FTA with China in 2008, which has led to an explosive growth of New Zealand's exports to China, especially dairy products.
In 2008, New Zealand's export to China was only 2.2 billion New Zealand dollars. This figure jumped to 9.9 billion New Zealand dollars in 2013, a 45 percent growth year-on-year. The strong demand from China has helped boost New Zealand's economic growth to 3.5 percent, stronger than in most developed nations.
The dramatic increase of dairy exports to China in New Zealand surely made Australian farmers jealous.
Brent Finlay, president of the National Farmers Federation said that he is "excited" at the prospects of an FTA with China.
Although Australian officials have downplayed the possibility of signing the FTA during Abbott's China visit next month, it is believed that the accord could be finalized by the end of the year, just as Abbott promised not long after taking office.
Australian officials fully realize the huge market in China with the Chinese middle class growing rapidly in lock step with the country's remarkable economic growth.
Projections show that the number of Chinese earning 100,000 RMB to 200,000 RMB (16,000 U.S. dollars to 32,000 U.S. dollars) per year will increase to 28 percent of the population by 2015, compared to 6 percent in 2010 and those earning more than 200,000 RMB will double to 4 percent in the same year.
With more disposable income, consumers in China are becoming more quality conscious. High quality products from Western countries are increasingly welcomed.
"While China is our largest trading partner, with two-way trade reaching 130 billion AU dollars (117 billion U.S. dollars) last year, there is great scope to deepen our relationship well beyond our import of Chinese consumables and export of our natural resources," Robb said.
Talks between Australia and China on the FTA have been underway for almost nine years. Once signed, it will be the first FTA that China would have with a major developed economy.
Australia is China's seventh largest trading partner. It is estimated that the FTA with China could boost the Australian economy by up to 20 billion AU dollars (18 billion U.S. dollars).