Australia is just a few days away from securing a free trade agreement with China that has been almost a decade in the making.
Trade Minister Andrew Robb has been leading the final stage of negotiations in Beijing before the APEC leaders summit, which starts on Monday.
“We are now at the very sharp end of our negotiations,” Mr Robb told reporters in the Chinese capital on Sunday. “It’ll be a few more days I think.”
Mr Robb concedes there are still two main sticking points. He won’t say what they are – arguing a public commentary could compromise the final stage of talks – only that they are complicated and potentially politically sensitive.
“We are nearly there but like all agreements that hardest part is probably at the end because the more difficult political issues are there,” he said.
It now appears likely Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Chinese President Xi Jinping will sign the deal when they are in Canberra in a week’s time.
Mr Xi will address the federal parliament on November 17, after the G20 summit in Brisbane.
Mr Robb says the deal will not only further liberalise trade in areas like resources, energy and agriculture – but also open up “a whole new flank” in services.
“This is huge. This is the biggest deal that we will have done by a long shot,” he said.
But he concedes not every sector of Australian industry will get exactly what it wants.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten is concerned the deal may spring some “nasties” on Australians and has urged Mr Abbott and Mr Robb to reveal the details.
“Tell Australians the truth; what’s in the deal?” he said.
Mr Shorten also accused the government of selectively leaking out good news, referring to a reported billion-dollar deal to sell live cattle to China.
Labor is concerned, too, that the FTA may open up the possibility of cheap Chinese labour in Australia – but Mr Robb insists that would not be the case.
The minister also denies that Australia’s decision not to sign up to China’s proposal for a new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank has had any effect on the trade talks.
Twenty countries joined China last month to sign an agreement to set up the body aimed at bridging a multi-billion dollar funding gap for dams, ports, roads and other important capital works across Asia.
But Australia was among a handful of countries that declined, citing governance concerns.
The issue has split federal cabinet – with some ministers concerned China will have too much control and will use the bank to further its geopolitical agenda – but Mr Robb says the government does want to be involved.
“We want to join and we think it would be a great thing for the region,” he said, adding that half of Australia’s concerns had already been addressed.
He says he has spoken about the issue with senior Chinese officials but they’re message has been clear: “Take your time”.