3 December 2003

The road to riches we didn't take

Australia is today negotiating a free trade pact with the United States, which could well be useful. But a trade pact with the US is no kind of substitute for trade pacts with Asia.

Australia exports more than five times as much to Asia as to the US, and while exports to Asia have been rising exports to the US have been falling.

The real importance of a trade pact with the US is that while it is not Australia's biggest export market it is usually the biggest or second biggest for East Asian economies.

At the end of the day most East Asian economies will not only want trade pacts with each other, but with the US as well.

An Australia-US free trade agreement might offer Australia a seat at the table if and when all the agreements now being negotiated within the region are rolled into one overarching regional agreement.

A region-wide trade agreement would certainly be in Australia's interests, because the more widespread and comprehensive the agreement the greater the probability that Australia could talk its way into it, and the bigger the gain to our trade.

But it is not yet part of Australian policy to encourage the creation of such a wide and comprehensive pact in the Asia-Pacific region. It should be.

Australia should now be exerting whatever influence it can to encourage the making of agreements consistent with the ultimate goal of creating a free trade community embracing all of East Asia and North America. It would be an ambitious goal, perhaps romantically so.

But so too were the projects to create APEC in the first place, and the annual leaders' meeting which gave it authority. They were ambitious ideas, both achieved, and both Australian.

The Asian economies would probably not devote quite so much energy to subverting the PBS and our film and television produciton either. There's almost a case for the USFTA just being more of the Howard habit of government-by-vendetta. Neither the PBS nor the arts stand high in the Man of Steel's view of things. Why worry about the real economy when you can shove one up the alleged elites?

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