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Australia, China target free trade agreement
Updated: 2004-03-18 14:04

Australia and China are moving quickly toward a free trade agreement, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Thursday, with a preliminary study likely to be completed ahead of schedule.

``There are very real prospects for Australia and China here,'' Downer said. ``There is mutual benefit in exploring that relationship, and we ought to do it a little faster than we are doing now.''

Downer said the mood of talks was so positive that a preliminary study into an agreement could be completed before the scheduled date of October 2005.

``When President Hu Jintao came to Canberra (last October) we agreed to set up a scoping study, to look at whether a free trade agreement with China is appropriate, and that work has started,'' Downer told a group of business people. ``The mood in the discussions between Australia and China on these issues is not only very good, but is moving forward very rapidly.''

China is Australia's third-largest and fastest-growing trading partner and fourth-largest export market. Trade between the two nations totaled 23 billion Australian dollars (US$17 billion) in 2002.

Last year, the Chinese president and Prime Minister John Howard witnessed the signing of four separate trade and economic treaties including two gas deals that make Australia a key supplier of energy to the world's most populous nation and an economy expected to triple in size over the next 20 years.

Australian resource companies also export iron ore and coal to China.

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